You probably have days when you're feeling overworked; when it seems like a single new task could topple the balance you've achieved with your commitments, deadlines, and sanity.
And then the boss or client comes to you with another assignment.
You've already spread yourself too thin. You know full well you can't fit this into your schedule without sacrificing quality...but you accept the task anyway.
Be honest with yourself. How many times have you said 'yes' with that sinking feeling, because you're afraid refusing will make you look uncommitted or lazy? Or worse, because you're worried you'll become dispensable and your client will just find someone else?
Refusing a request from your boss can be intimidating, especially if you work for someone who doesn't appreciate any answer but, "of course, when do you want it?" But it's better than setting yourself up to fail.
So, what should you do when you're in this situation? Learn to say "no" gracefully. Let your boss know that your hands are tied, but you can still offer solutions to help the team out.
1. Don't be hard on yourself.
It's human to be ambitious, to want to say 'Yes' to everything, and to do a good job in whatever you do. But don't forget, you're working with an organization or with clients who are trying to get more work done with as few resources as possible. Work can get too much for you, and not being able to do more than you can handle is nothing to beat yourself up over. It shouldn't make you feel that you're not smart enough or working hard enough.
On the flip side, if you take up a task to impress your boss, and it becomes a rushed job that doesn't match your usual quality, it will have an impact on your career. You will come across as unreliable.
2. Be honest, but don't say "I can't."
How you refuse is critical. Saying "I can't," because of some personal reason is not what your boss wants to hear. There are ways to soften your answer, and still be honest about your refusal.
If you truly don't have the time, say something like, "I'm already chasing those deadlines you gave me yesterday." Then go on and ask, "How should I prioritize my list? Do you need this done first?" Tell your boss what you're working on, how long it's going to take you, and what you’ll have to stop doing to take up the new task. This way, your boss will have the chance to think about what's important, and whether he can postpone the project for later.
3. Know when to give in.
On occasion you may be approached with a task that is not - in usual circumstances - your job. But if it’s busy and someone has to do it to help the team out, it may be wise to agree. As long as it's not a job that will derail the work you have on hand - and if it is nothing more than just a nuisance - it is good to pitch in.
You can still say "no" if the job will distract you from your other deadlines. But make sure you do it in the way outlined in (1).
4. Ask for advice and offer help.
When you feel bogged down with too much work, you can always ask your boss or a friend for their views on your workload. Is there a way that you can streamline your tasks, get more efficient at them, and improve on time management?
Here’s an example: there is a content developer producing a series of eBooks with their team when they already have their finger in several other projects.
They explain to their manager they understand the priorities of the organization, and describe the projects they’re working on, both technical and creative sides. They share the projects that are on track, and those lagging behind. They explain that creating audience personas for the company's clients take up a huge chunk of their time, and ask if there’s a way to streamline the process.
They offer suggestions on how the company could rearrange certain schedules, push some non-essential projects back, and hire marketing personnel to share the workload.
This shows several correct ways to handle a response to the eBook project assignment. There is honesty in explaining the problem, and asking for advice. The boss agreed with the suggestion to put some projects on the backburner, and hire someone to help.
They also advised that going forward in content developer’s career, the job would be more about delegating tasks to team members, and less about micromanaging everyday tasks.
They came away from that meeting with valuable advice, and workable solutions.
You can also ask a colleague you're close to, or a friend, to look at your workload and offer impartial advice on how you can better manage it.
5. Seek support from your colleagues.
If your boss is not as reasonable as the content developer’s manager, let your colleagues know about it. They may be able to help. But try not to sound whiny about your workload. No one likes the person who always complains about overtime, or dramatically describes how they had to re-format the presentation over the weekend.
Even if your colleagues can't help, they will have a heads up so that if a project gets delayed because you get swamped, they will be prepared for it. This way, you won't have done anything to erode their trust.
6. Hold your boundaries
This advice especially applies to freelancers and consultants. If you have turned down work today that your client pushes back, but comes back to you in a few months - you're not obliged to budge. If the same reasons for your refusal hold true, you should hold your boundaries. On the other hand, you can always re-evaluate and see if you can take on the job now.
To sum up, here is how to tell your boss you are overworked:
1. Be honest, and explain your reasons.
2. Don't whine about it. Offer solutions.
3. Seek help from your colleagues, and take advice from your boss.
4. Pitch in when it's needed.
If the overwork is not too bad yet, but you see a new project looming in the distance and only want a little sympathy, you could try to leave some clues so that your colleagues know that you're already working hard.
A subtle way to go about it is to leave a time stamp in your emails. For instance, if you're informing someone about a report that you stayed back to complete, you could say, "Hard work done after hours!" This is a way of letting others see how hard you're working, without actually sending out an email complaining that you're working overtime.
In the end, remember that being overworked is not sustainable in the long run. If you have a job where you're continually overworked, you may be better off in another company.
Have you been saddled with work you couldn't handle? If you refused it, how did you go about it? Let us know below and share the good advice!