Imagine this. You’re utterly flat out at work, painfully aware of how close you’ve come lately to dropping balls (or maybe you’ve dropped a few). You’re stressed from what seems like working all the time, but you don’t know any other way to address all that’s on your plate. Then you get another big assignment that puts you over the edge: now this really is impossible, even for you (with your hard core work ethic and ability to muscle through whatever-it-takes). Sound plausible? Familiar?
Here’s what productivity guru David Allen writes about this in a recent newsletter:
The good news about this overwhelm is that it’s forcing people to make executive decisions that they never felt like they had to make before. “I need to do everything that comes my way.” No, you can’t anymore, sorry. You are going to have to do triage. That means you are going to have to have a conversation with your boss. You are going to have to show up with a list of everything he or she has given you and have a conversation. “Gee, thanks for these new things, can we talk? Because I am not going to be able to do them all.” It’s forcing those kinds of conversations. Read more. . . .
For years I’ve helped clients have conversations like these with their bosses (and with their own direct reports when they initiate it). Most find it helpful to talk through how to position the conversation, how to language what they need to say, and how to sustain a constructive dialog without complicating it by getting defensive, lashing out, or feeling bad about themselves.
Here are my top 5 recommendations:
- If this is your first time having a conversation like this, don’t wing it.You stand to benefit hugely from doing some preparation.
- Keep the conversation about the work. It’s not about you, and it’s not about your boss. Assume the mindset that you and your boss are on the same team whose mission is to get the work done.
- Keep the language neutral. Don’t paint yourself as wrong, bad, or ineffective. Don’t paint your boss as wrong, unreasonable, or mean (even if you think she or he is).
- Ask for clarification about priorities. “I thought you wanted me to keep A as my absolute top priority because it has such a tight schedule and so much is riding on it. Now you’re asking me to also work on B. Please help me understand — has the priority changed? Do you want me to let some of the A deadlines slide?” “Would you help me re-prioritize what’s on my plate, given the new assignment?”
- Go into the conversation with a written bullet list of what’s on your plate. This can be a strategic visual to have with you, particularly if you’re going to ask for help in re-prioritizing. It takes the pressure off you (and your boss) to remember everything that’s on your list.
- Anticipate the emotions (defensiveness, low self-esteem, anger, frustration) you might experience, and have a plan for how to deal with them so that they don’t sabotage your conversation. For example, if you’re likely to feel defensive about not being able to do everything, be prepared to recognize it in real time and deploy a tactic to restore your levelheadedness, such as anchoring or a silent affirmation.
On a related note, if you suspect that your work habits are truly inefficient, address this issue. For example, consider taking one of David Allen’s seminars. Many highly effective people swear by them.
In short, if your to-do list has really become an impossible list, either get some help in optimizing your performance, or get some help from your boss. Or both. Either one is likely to reduce your work stress in the short term and lead to an all-around better situation for you in the long term.