Overcoming Overwork and
Over-commitment at the Office

By Kate Zabriskie

It’s Tuesday and the boss wants six projects finished by Friday. It’s a particularly busy time of year, and one of your teammates is out on maternity leave. To top it off, you have three evening family obligations this week and your car’s “check engine” light illuminated this morning. Face it, your name might as well be overworked or overcommitted. You simply have too much to do to do it well. In situations such as these, there are six proven steps you can take to immediately take control and get your life in order.

1. Take an honest look at where you are, and determine how you got into this position in the first place. Did you not know about any of the projects? Did the coworker deliver her baby two months early? Have you had your car on a regular service schedule? Tell the truth; chances are that not everything that has piled up is a surprise.

2. Figure out what you can realistically get done and what you might be able to delegate. Is there someone else who can help with the work projects? Can you miss one of the family obligations or be a little late? Can you come in early? You must devise a plan of action and at least a few alternatives. You are going to need them in step four.

3. Quickly make your office look presentable. Nothing will set many bosses off faster than having someone say that he or she can’t get it all done from the depths of clutter and disorganization. Caution: be careful not to spend more than an hour on this step. While appearances are important, you don’t want to lose focus of the immediate problem of the unfinished projects by spending your precious time sharpening pencils.

4. At this point, you are probably as prepared as you are going to get. Now it’s time for the potentially painful part. You must set up a meeting with the boss. Unless you had a major epiphany during steps one, two, or three, you are going to have to come clean about your situation. How you handle this step could change how the work gets accomplished and how you are perceived. To that end, there are some actions you should avoid at all costs and some that you should take when possible.

Actions to Avoid

  • Saying nothing: As appealing as this option may seem, the boss will figure out that the work isn’t done. It won’t work long term, and you may get a reputation as a passive-aggressive employee.

  • Calling in sick and get the work done from home: Again, as appealing as this option may seem, if the stakes are high enough, the boss isn’t going to care if you are in the hospital. He or she is going to want to know the status of the projects. Furthermore, you are an adult. A note from your mother isn’t going to get you out of this.

  • Acting like a victim and make excuses - after all, this isn’t really your fault: How would you like to hear the following excuse? “Boss, as you know I’ve had a lot of extra work piled on me lately. Really, it’s quite unfair. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that my projects are going to be late. What kind of help are you going to give me?”

  • Having no concrete plan: Going to the boss with no solution is not a good idea. Your inability to problem- solve may be more detrimental in your boss’s eyes than your not getting the projects finished.

Actions to Take

  • Accepting responsibility for the situation: Try a statement such as this: “Boss, I have six projects due this Friday. I realize that I did not manage the due dates as well as I should have and am not going to get everything done by then. I have a couple of suggestions for how I might attack the work. However, before we discuss my ideas, could you tell me which of the projects is most important to you?”

  • Keeping the conversation about the work and not about you: Phrases such as, “I’ve been tired” or “I’m overworked and overstretched” are not going to win you any points. Instead, try: “This project is one I believe I can complete quickly. I find the other one considerably more complicated.”

  • Maintaining positive and professional body language: This means acting alert but not frantically running around the office, pacing or showing other signs of stress and agitation.

  • Resisting the urge to keep apologizing: Saying sorry once or twice is fine. After that over apologize and you’ll just start sounding like a sorry loser.

  • Doing what the boss recommends: Assuming that you are working for someone who is reasonable, do whatever he or she says. Now is not the time to argue about process or priorities. For now, you have lost that privilege.

5. Once all of the projects are completed, you may feel as if you have had an express lesson in project management and keeping track of your time. Resist the urge to get too excited; now is not the occasion to celebrate by slacking off. You still need to do some serious reputation control. To avoid a relapse, do the following:

  • Get a calendar if you don’t already have one, and use it. Write down what you have to do each day, and check those items off as you complete them.

  • Keep your family obligations on your work calendar to avoid any surprises.

  • Each day, review where you are in terms of your projects due for the next four weeks.

  • Keep your boss informed. He or she is probably keeping a closer eye on you than you think. Finally, even if you are not asked, send the occasional status report.

6. If you start to get that familiar feeling that again your life is getting out of control, and you have been following the maintenance steps to avoid bad time management, you need to put some extra work in to prioritizing. You must determine what you can realistically accomplish inside and outside of work and then learn to say “no” to the items that are not priorities. To say “no” and still be socially acceptable and a team player, do the following:

  • Repeat what is being asked of you to confirm understanding.

  • Then, if the boss is the requester, offer a choice, “Would you like the management report first, or the Perry contract finished?” 

  • If the request is not work-related or won’t affect your status at the office, politely decline. “I appreciate you considering me for this task. I wish I weren’t already tied up with the Perry contract, otherwise I would be happy to help you.”

  • If possible, suggest someone else for the task. “Although I’m busy with the Perry contract, have you asked Joe Griffin? He would be perfect for this.” Do not suggest Joe just because he is a warm body. Suggest him because he really is a good fit.

The good news is you are now more organized and able to methodically attack multiple tasks. Now it’s time to take a deep breath, hunker down, and tackle next week’s to-do list. Soon enough, you’ll be earning points as your boss notices how well you are able to manage multiple projects in a professional manner.

Read other articles and learn more about Kate Zabriskie.

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