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What To Do When You’ve Got Too Much Work
Do you get to the end of the week and wonder what you’ve spent the days on? Your To-Do list on a Friday might not look that much different to how it did on Monday, and yet you’ve barely had time to grab a coffee because you just haven’t stopped.
You’ve got so many balls in the air. However, juggling will only get you so far. There are strategies you can use to help you streamline your projects and combine work across stakeholders and teams. I talk about those in detail in my book, Managing Multiple Projects, which sets out a 5-part framework for leading projects in parallel and still leaving the office on time.
But what if you implement everything and still find there is too much to do?
At some point, you need to acknowledge that your workload is simply too much for the amount of time that you’ve got in the day. But are you ready to admit that to yourself? Or to your boss?
Why people don’t admit to having too much work
There are often unwritten expectations of behaviour at work that make it hard to talk about workload. For example, people don’t want to give the impression that they can’t cope because they are nervous about what that says about them: maybe they aren’t capable of taking a promotion or leading that next big project. Maybe their colleagues will think they are slacking. There is also the stigma around talking about mental health issues and stress, burnout and overwhelm.
Having too much work is often the result of your manager not knowing what you are spending your time on. They don’t know how you are using your hours, so they assume you can take on something else until you tell them that you can’t do anything more.
Let's talk about strategies for how to tell your boss that you’ve maxed out your workload.
1. Schedule a meeting
First, plan a meeting with your manager. You can use your regular one-to-one time, or book a separate conversation, whatever you feel would work best. Make sure it’s at a time when you don’t have anything to rush on to so you can digest what is said and reflect on the conversation, especially if you are worried about bringing this topic up.
2. Prepare a list of your tasks
The discussion will be easier if it is evidence-based. Make a list of all your open projects and all the other things you do around the edges of those, like mentoring colleagues, organizing team events, training, team leadership, management activities or the general admin that just needs to get done.
Try to put a number of hours against each of the tasks. Allocate a priority to each project, based on your current understanding of how it ranks against your other work. If you have fixed delivery dates for any pieces of work, add those in too. This list represents your personal work portfolio: all the things you are responsible for delivering.
I’ve done this exercise with many people and it’s always eye-opening. Expect your list to be longer than you first thought!
3. Consider your options
Before the meeting, look through your list and see if you can think of any options that would enable you to hit the deadlines and meet the commitments you wrote down. For example:
- Delegate a project to someone else
- Ring-fence 20% of your week for team management activities
- Recruit a new colleague to share the workload
- Got on a time management training course
- Postpone a new project for two months while you close out three others.
There might be some simple answers to how you can make the most of your time, or you might have to get creative about it. Your manager will be seeing your personal work portfolio for the first time and will be looking to you for suggestions on how to deal with the problem you are telling them about.
4. Have the discussion
Talk to your manager. Tell them that you are concerned about your workload and would like some help prioritizing your tasks so you can make sure that the most important activities get enough of your time. Be prepared with details about what you have done to improve your personal productivity and manage your projects effectively so you can evidence the changes you made and how they have not been enough.
Explain the steps you have taken to make sure you are working in the most efficient way. Use examples of how you have streamlined your work to keep your productivity levels high – this helps offset the concern that you are simply not organized enough or that you don’t use tried-and-tested techniques to save time at work.
Share your portfolio list with them. Talk them through all the things you do and how much time they take each week. Point out the activities you have ranked as top priority and ask if they agree.
The goal of the conversation is to agree on the priority tasks and projects and to highlight that by working on them, you may not be able to keep everything else moving forward at the same time because there are only a certain number of hours in the week.
Discuss your options or recommendations for how best to address the workload. They might not be able to make a decision on the spot about certain choices, for example, hiring additional resources, but at least you have put the idea on their radar for consideration.
5. Monitor the situation
After the conversation, take action to put any agreed steps into practice. For example, reorganize your workload to focus on the things that were agreed as the top priorities. Report progress weekly, as this can also act as a reminder about what is not getting done.
Most importantly, monitor how you feel about your workload after a couple of weeks. Has the overwhelm gone? Have bad habits started to creep back in? Are you staying later? And are you truly still working in the most efficient, streamlined way, using all the tools, strategies and tactics available to you to manage your portfolio of projects?
No time management techniques in the world will help you leave the office on time if you routinely have more to do than any human could naturally cope with. However, you need to be open to identifying that this is a problem and willing to take steps to do something about it. Talking to your manager about workload might be awkward, but it is your only reasonable choice.
Don’t struggle on because that leads to burnout. You are not a resource; you are a human who deserves a supportive work environment and a workload that doesn’t feel like it’s crushing you. If you don’t feel that you can achieve that in your current role, it could be time to look for somewhere else to work.