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4 reasons why you can’t say no to too much work

Let’s say you find yourself tasked with leading a new project – say it’s the rollout of a company-wide performance management system.

In your first strategy meeting your team determines that you need to conduct interviews with managers, create and validate metrics for making hiring and promotion decisions, and work with senior leaders to ensure the system is in keeping with corporate culture. As you begin to divide tasks, you volunteer to conduct the interviews because you are the project manager and you want to lead from the front. Then, you offer to take a second look at the metrics to give them a “second set of eyes”. Then, since you are leading the team, you begin meeting with senior leaders too. Before long you start to struggle to meet your commitments, and feel a growing resentment toward the rest of the team for not pulling their weight.

Does this pattern sound familiar to you? Outside of the specifics of the performance management project example, many of us take on too much work and this leads to resentment.

We often give a hundred reasons why we do take on so much work, to the point of not being able to do any of it well. However, they can generally be distilled into three categories.

We want to please

Regardless of whether you classify yourself as a “people pleaser” or not, everyone loves to feel needed and appreciated. However, typically people who struggle to say, “No” to a request have an intense fear of rejection or a fear of failure. Our early life experiences with especially harsh or critical parents can often result in the feeling that your inaction will result in the disappointment of your friends or colleagues. The desire to please is also deeply connected with anxiety, resentment, passive aggressive behavior, stress, and depression.

We have a lack of self-awareness

Self-awareness is one of those terms that everyone loves to throw around but few will do the difficult work to acquire. When we don’t have a good handle on our own capacity or ability level, it is easy to underestimate how much effort a certain task will require from us. If you continuously make work decisions with a lack of self-awareness, you will often find yourself buried under a mountain of tasks you do not have the ability to complete in a timely and efficient manner.

We don’t think we have a choice

The idea that you do not have a choice whether to take on a task is partly connected to a need to please and often connected to feelings of insecurity or anxiety. Once you begin making work decisions based on feelings of helplessness, resentment and anger soon follow. Before long, you are left feeling “stuck” or “trapped” in your job, even if it is something you previously enjoyed.

What to do instead

Fortunately, there are a few easy strategies to avoid taking on too much at work. First, learn how to wait. Often times people who take on too much do not wait for others to volunteer. Unless the task is something you are excited about, count to 20 and really consider the task before agreeing to it. Second, when faced with a person asking you to do something, ask three questions.

1. What is the specific task that is being requested? Many people love to make requests without completely formulating the task in question. When you ask a requester this question, it forces them to list out the particulars of the task at hand and allow you to determine if it is within your skill set and timeline or not.

2. Will I need to learn a new skill to complete this task? There are times in our careers when we are ready and able to learn a new skill that will benefit us in the long run. If your current workload allows for the time and effort it would require to learn a new skill and if you are interested in the new skill, go for it. If not, politely decline.

3. How does this task fit into my overall workload? If you have to juggle your existing schedule for anything other than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s okay to say “no” instead.

As difficult as it may be to say “no” at work, consider it a long-term investment in your career. Not only will you be perceived as an honest individual, you will be able to reliably meet the deadlines and demands placed on you. Feelings of anger and resentment will melt away and you may even find yourself with more time to pursue career advancement or skill development.

Author: Pedro Diaz
Pedro-Diaz-authorPedro Diaz is the CEO of Workplace Mental Health Institute. He’s an author and accredited mental health social worker with senior management experience. Having recovered from his own experience of bipolar depression, Pedro is passionate about assisting organisations to address workplace mental health issues in a compassionate yet results-focussed way. He’s also a Dad, Husband, Trekkie and Thinker.

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