Saying No at Work: Workload Edition

You are just about managing to spin all your plates and stay on top of your workload. Your manager loves the work you’ve been doing and asks if you can take on an additional project. They know you get things done and your results are always good, so it has to be you. But you know you’re just about coping. You know you shouldn’t take it on, you simply don’t have the bandwidth… but you don’t want to say no… or you feel you can’t?

What would saying “No” mean? That you’re a bad employee? That you’re incapable? That you’re ungrateful for the opportunity? That you don’t care about your career? That you can’t cope and manage your time effectively? That you don’t respect your manager? That you simply don’t care or you’re selfish?

It’s funny, when I say these sentences out loud, they seem like silly fears, but when you’re in the thick of it, these fears feel very real. So you take on the extra project, you’ll cope… and by some miracle, you do! You’re not quite sure how… but you do. Your manager is elated. “Ah, amazing! I’m so impressed. As a reward, here are a few more responsibilities and… uuuhhh, I think you’ll be great for these two more more projects. Yeah, I’ll hand those over to you. Can’t wait to see what you do!”

Oh, F-! You’re still recovering from the effort you put in over the past months, you thought you had escaped the hellish territory, and now you may be back there again, and this time deeper. You’re not sure you’ll survive the extra work this time around. You’re always tired, you haven’t spent quality time with your partner or loved ones for months, your thoughts are consumed with your infinity-long to do list… you’re losing yourself and your health.

This is a scary place to be and sadly, I know anyone passionate about what they do has been here. Working this way… heck, living this way is not sustainable or good for you, so what do you do?

Change your Perspective

The first place to start is to change your own perception on saying No. When you are saying No, what are you really saying? What you’re really saying is…

“I pride myself on doing good work. Taking on this project will spread me thin and have a knock-on effect on output.”

“I’m tired and need a break.”

“I need to spend more time with my family.”

“I need to prioritise myself.”

“I need time to pursue my non-work related passions.”

All these reasons and variations of these reasons are valid! They matter. You matter!

You have to believe that You matter, this will be the driving force for any conversation you have with your manager. Care for yourself by advocating for yourself.

Understand your Boundaries

Another key element to approaching the prospect of saying No to your boss is to define your boundaries. Ok, pause right here. I’d like you to get a piece of paper and a pen or pencil. Draw a line down the centre of the paper. In the left column, list requests that have come your way that you consider to be reasonable. In the right column list requests you struggled with due to your workload.

Take a look at your piece of paper. Digest the contents of both columns. The items on the left are requests that fall within your boundaries. The items on the right are requests that fell outside of your boundaries. Now, I know work requires flexibility and everyone needs to be stretched and challenged in their role but you should have boundaries.

Get another sheet of paper, and again, split it in 2. List your boundaries on the left, and list why they are important to you on the right. This column on the right is what is often forgotten when working. Don’t ignore or dismiss what is important to you.

Quality vs Quantity

Quite often, people’s workloads are their own doing. They volunteer for everything, say yes to everything, just to show they are capable, to make a good impression or so they can ask for a promotion or pay increase. & that’s fine…. but… what a lot of people who take on the whole world don’t realise is when your workload is heavy, the quality of what you do correlates negatively. So you may be juggling a thousand things, but is it possible to do a thousand things well?

Be clear about what is important to you about the work you do, and bear this in mind before catching every opportunity thrown at you. If you miss one, it’s not the end of the world. When the time is right, there’ll be more.

Leverage your Team / Peers

You don’t have to do everything on your own. You can ask for help. Is there anyone with relevant experience who can provide input or someone you know has an interest in the area you’re tackling? Would they love the opportunity to get involved? Would this be a great opportunity for cross-team or department collaboration? Would this be an amazing learning opportunity for someone who reports into you? Can they kick off the initial stages of your project, enabling you to better use your time by only having to work on the juicy part?

Talk to Your Manager

Where tasks/projects are thrust upon you, you’ll need to learn how to talk to your manager about your workload. You should be having regular one-to-ones to keep them in the loop of your responsibilities. If you do not have regular one-to-ones, ask for them, this helps build a relationship and encourages openness as you become more familiar with each other.

Use your one-to-ones wisely. Don’t make the mistake of only ever focussing on detail. Always start with the big picture, then become granular when necessary. Discuss your workload, how much time you’re spending on activities, deadlines, challenges. When your manager has a more intimate view of your world, they won’t be so quick to throw things at you, they’ll at least consider your workload before doing that and ask whether you have capacity.

… But I’ve Always Said Yes

So you’ve built up this reputation where you’ve always done everything with a smile. It’s always a “Yes”, it’s always, a “No problem, of course” … meanwhile, inside you’re weeping. Now you have this reputation, how on earth do you say, “No?”

I’m going to cover How to say No to your Manager in a future article, so watch this space!

In the meantime, you can listen to my podcast episode on Saying No to Meetings — it’s a great starting point.

Finally, I hope this song inspires you. 😄

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Lola Oguntokun

Lola Oguntokun

I help build, shape and champion innovative companies and culture.