So, your boss is asking a lot of you and you're not quite sure how to tell them that you've already got a laundry list of assignments or you're supposed to be on vacation, and their expectations are simply unrealistic. Maybe your boss has never done your job so they don't realize how much time it actually takes to do. Or maybe you're working for several different managers, and one doesn't realize that the other has given you a hefty assignment due on the same day. Perhaps your boss just has a lot on their plate and they've lost sight of exactly how much they're asking of you.
Regardless of why you're on different pages — or even different planets — setting realistic expectations can make your working relationship with your boss a more harmonious one, and they can make you a more productive employee. But how do you tell your boss that you need to do things differently without making it seem like you're either lazy or just not cut out for the job?
First, really, carefully think about the level of effort being asked of you — is it really too much or it is just a challenge? While it may be irritating if this workload is being put on your shoulders at the last minute, ask yourself if it's still doable nonetheless. Your manager might just be pushing you beyond your comfort zone to help you develop new skills like meeting tight deadlines, for example.
If that's not the case, then the truth is that spreading yourself thin by trying to juggle too much is only going to set you up for failure anyway. So here are some things you can say when you run into differences of opinion about what's doable.
1. "I Appreciate That You Trust Me With This Assignment, But I Have a Lot on My Plate at the Moment — Can We Sit Down to Talk About It?"
In order to set more realistic expectations with your boss, you need to have a professional conversation with them and address the issue directly. Don't beat around the bush — you don't have the time. But say this before it really gets to the last minute and you leave your boss hanging.
It's not easy admitting to your boss that you cannot handle your workload, so make sure that you have some legitimate reasons to back up your case and bring them to their attention early on. If you wait to tell your boss that you don't have time for their assignment after the assignment was due, you've left them with nothing. If you tell them earlier on that X, Y or Z are going to be a time hindrance, you're at least acknowledging that they may need to reassign the task to someone else, help your re-prioritize or extend your deadline.
2. "I'm Happy to Be Heading This Project, and I Think It'd Be Great to Loop in Tara Here."
Maybe you've got your hands tied, but you know you could get the job done if you had a little help. Instead of complaining about why you can't meet the expectations asked of you, shift the conversation to asking about the resources (like colleagues) available for you to use to make those goals achievable.
Maybe your colleague can help you with a part of the assignment. If so, your ability to take on a task and delegate work successfully may also demonstrate your leadership skills.
3. "I Will Be Able to Have This Completed and Sent to You by EOD Friday — a Few More Days Will Ensure That X, Y or Z Could Happen."
If you're getting requests that don't seem reasonable, propose a timeline that does seem reasonable to you. In other words, instead of saying a flat-out no, offer up a timeline that would help you ensure that you do the job well. If you're a writer and think you'll need more time to get more credible quotes for a story, for example, letting your editor know that those quotes could make the story that much better will be a legitimate incentive for them to extend your deadline. Likewise, if you're an architect and you're waiting on a difficult client to give feedback on blueprints, your boss will likely want their feedback before you move ahead with something that'll potentially be scrapped down the line. You may need some more time to meet with that client.
4. "I've Got Some Time Today to Start Looking at Anything Pressing for Next Week."
If your boss routinely waits until the end of the day on Friday to start assigning you tasks that are due early the following week, take notice of the trend and try to stop it. You don't need to call your boss out. Rather, you can start asking them on Thursday about anything pressing for the next week, so if you have some extra time on Thursday or Friday, you can get a head start.
On top of better managing your time, your boss will appreciate your willingness to help and stay abreast of anything pressing.
5. "In Order to Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance, I'll Get on This When I'm Back in the Office/I'm Forwarding This Along to Lisa Who Will Be Handling This While I'm Away."
If your boss is consistently emailing you on weekends, on your vacation or after work hours when you're not necessarily in "work mode," you should let them know that those times are for you to unwind so you can come back to work recharged. You're entitled to your time off, and a boss who understands what a healthy work-life balance looks like will respect that.
6. "I'm Sorry, But I Cannot Help You out on This Because [This Other Responsibility I Have] Is a Pressing Priority."
If you're sick of feeling like you're an office mom or taking on tasks for which you're definitely not paid, try telling your boss that you cannot "help" them with a certain task because you have responsibilities tied to your job description that take priority.
7. "It'd Be Great to Sit Down and Prioritize a List This Week."
If your boss keeps piling on the work, ask them to sit down to go through the list of tasks you have and prioritize them. While they may have assigned one weeks ago, this new one might take precedence. They may not even remember what they've assigned you, so having a tangible list they can read could help them to realize just how much you're doing for them, as well as help them give you new/adjusted deadlines that are more reasonable.
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AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.