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Too Much on Your Plate at Work? Try This

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This time of year, our calendars are often full from morning to night. And through it all, we’re given lots of advice on how to avoid spreading ourselves too thin: Don’t volunteer to bake cookies for staff week, host your boss and her family for dinner, and agree to watch your neighbor’s kid every Saturday morning while you're also trying to find time for activities integral to your personal health and well-being.

Sometimes we need that same advice in our professional lives.

We all feel compelled to say “yes” whenever we can; we want to do our best. But what if doing our best work actually means learning when and how to say “no”?

If you're feeling personally and professionally overwhelmed, here are some steps to take to try to alleviate the stress.

Give yourself a break

Pay attention to conversations with friends—there is a good chance they will share something about feeling unable to do all they have committed to as well. In other words: You’re in good company!

But even with camaraderie, it can be difficult to feel like you’re doing your best work if you can’t tackle everything on your list. But all you may need is a little extra room on your plate. The question is, where can you find it?

You'll want to start by honestly assessing what a reasonable workload looks like for you, and how that measures up to your reality. Is your feeling constant, or is there one specific project or priority that's stressing you out more than the rest?

Is one looming project throwing you off course?

If there's one big project that always seems to take priority over all else, it's normal to feel like it always has to be number one. But there are ways to deal with this kind of singular stress. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What can be done with my other responsibilities?
  • Are there things that can be taken off my list?
  • What can be pushed back until next week? Next month?
  • How can I reframe the project I'm currently trying to tackle?
  • Can any of the work be done in stages?
  • Are there things I can delegate?

Once you thoughtfully consider each of these questions, you'll be able to better identify the source of your stress and start working on solutions.

Wrestling with tons of little fires?

It’s a little harder to tease out a solution if you never have enough time to get through any of your work. Here are some questions to explore in trying to diagnose the issue:

  • Is this a problem of time management and prioritization?
  • Try this: Create a to-do list with specific deadlines for each item. A tool like Trello or Asana could be helpful if this is your main issue.
  • Is there simply too much on my list?
  • Try this: Make a master list of your projects and estimate how much time you’d need to complete all projects on your list.
  • Try this: Rearrange your schedule so you tackle your “problem projects” during the time of the day when you do your best work.

You may also want to consider whether there are common threads or patterns from one unfinished item on your to-do list to the next, and what may be keeping you from completing or focusing on the projects that fit into this category.

Communicating limits

If you are able to identify the root of each individual issue, it will be easier for you to explain your problem to a supervisor, ask for support, and advocate for yourself. Let her know that you are having difficulty keeping up, but also that you have a plan to stay afloat.

  • If you need time to complete the big project, let your supervisor know that this is your first priority. You could say: “These are the things I’m taking off my list until I finish this. What do you think?”
  • If you're feeling overwhelmed all the time, try this: “I’m seeing these three things as priorities right now. I’m not as far along as I’d hoped to be, so I’m planning to move this work to the top of my list. Would you review what's left on my plate to make sure I’m on the right track?”

It's also worth trying some simple goal setting to keep you on track and continue to help you assess where and why you're falling behind. Set goals collaboratively with your supervisor so that you can return to them later if there's a need to ask for additional support.

Being upfront about your limitations helps you to problem solve collaboratively and make progress on shared priorities.

Keep from overcommitting next time

Sometimes there are good reasons to say “yes” to more work, even if you’re maxed out.

But for all those other times, here are some ways to practice saying “no.”

  • Take on a minor role. You could say, “I don’t have the time in my schedule this month, but I’m willing to answer any questions anyone may have.”
  • Communicate with your co-workers. You may learn that some co-workers have the bandwidth to take on additional work. Plus, in communicating your challenges as well as your path forward, you’re letting colleagues know that you’re feeling overextended yet still committed to supporting the team.
  • Set time constraints. If you’re given tasks with higher responsibility, make time part of the conversation around new assignments.

Above all, take time each week to focus on one or two things you’re doing well. Remembering to keep our challenges in perspective helps us to overcome them, and we can all find something we’re doing well—even if it’s just being honest that we need additional support to start.


About the Author | For nearly two decades, Jeannette Eaton has been working for nonprofits and helping people identify their strengths. She has experience as an advocate for women and girls in crisis, a volunteer coordinator for adult literacy, and a family literacy instructor.

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