When I was 25, I started in my first professional position after graduate school, as an assistant at a financial institution. I was the primary line of contact for 3000+ clients, and 2 pension plans, and I had 16 phone lines that came straight to my desk. It was busy at the slowest times of year, and between processing trades, communicating with clients, and translating “investment speak” into something recognizable to those not in the industry, I was working 50 hours on a standard week. So one day when in the midst of 10 tasks that were all deemed “rush rush rush!” my junior Investment Professional told me that she wanted me to stuff 2000+ envelopes with promotional materials and mail them by the end of the week, I blurted out the first word that came to mind: “NO!” Obviously not my best career move, and yes, I got a huge dressing down, but my point in sharing the story is that sometimes you really can’t accomplish everything and you need to say no. Here are some tips for handling those situations with tact:
Learn to recognize your limits: There is a reason that the phrase is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Oftentimes it is a series of tiny things that build up, rather than a few big things. If you’re at your limit with work, talk with your colleagues and manager to see if you can either slow down the flow or get some help to clear the backlog. Before you set up the meeting, you’ll need to have a list of tasks with timelines and status. You’ll also want to know what you’re asking for: administrative support? a temporary hire to assist? collaboration? Going into the conversation with clear ideas and suggestions will help your manager, and you’ll get better results.
Don’t shy away from difficult conversations: We all experience this one – your manager has a brilliant idea, and despite knowing that you’re swamped, says “I want you in on this one.” Yay… another project that you don’t have time for! You might want to blurt out no, like I did, but there is a better way. Schedule a meeting and offer up different scenarios to your manager. Start by being positive about the new project, but remind them of your existing obligations and timelines. You might say something like this: “Project A sounds really interesting, and you know I’m happy to help, but right now I have Projects 1, 2 & 3 on the go and I don’t have sufficient time to devote to all of them to keep on deadline. If you want me on Project A, then I will have to delegate 1, 2 or 3…” Again, make sure that you have all the deadlines and status information at hand. Your manager might have no idea how long it takes you to actually reach the end stage of your process, so be sure to provide that information (e.g. process x takes 2 weeks, and I won’t be free to start something new until Whenever).
Remember the Rolling Stones’ Advice: You can’t always get what you want (saw that coming, didn’t you?). Sometimes, despite being overworked, your manager is going to assign you yet another project. If you can’t get out of it diplomatically, and you can’t delegate any of your regular workload, schedule a conversation to discuss the situation. If it is a short term, one-off project, you might discuss overtime, flex scheduling, timelines and set limits. Your manager might even extend the deadline of the new project if you give them a good reason.
Take an inventory: List out your current tasks, projects and deadlines, so you have an accurate list of what needs to be done. You might be feeling overwhelmed because you’re only looking at the end product. When you break everything down into its components, you’ll see that there are things you can do to start making some progress, and that should lessen the stress. When you take your inventory, include estimates of how long things will take to accomplish and book those tasks into your calendar. Once you organize out your current obligations, you’ll have a better sense of whether you can take on anything new or if you need to ask for help.
Have you ever had a situation where you wanted to say “no” on the job? Share your story in the comments. Questions, as always, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.