Dear Lifehacker, I've noticed that the harder and smarter I work, the more work I get! I want to be productive, but I also don't want to burn out. How can I be good at what I do without encouraging my boss and coworkers to add their crap to my plate? Sincerely, Productively Overworked
Dear Productively Overworked,
The problem with being good at what you do is that everyone wants you to keep doing it — so much so that the moment you're free, there's something else for you to tackle. You don't have to let it get to the point of burnout though! You can have it both ways: work smart and be productive, give yourself plenty of breathing room, and simultaneously make it clear to your coworkers and boss that being efficient isn't the same thing as being bored. Here's how.
Learn to Say No
The first thing you'll need to learn to do is to learn to say no without wrecking your career or coming off like a jerk. A lot of these suggestions will concentrate on appearances and shaping people's mindset of how busy you really are, but nothing will be more effective than managing your workload by giving the people assigning you work direct feedback. Photo by Horia Varlan.
When you've mastered the ability to say no — that is, force your manager to understand that piling something on your plate means something else needs to come off, and that adding something to your workload needs to come with a clear description of that item's priority — you'll find it easier to work without fear of getting dumped on.
Make Yourself Unavailable to Avoid Extra Work
There's something to be said for just ducking people who try to dump on you. In many offices, your calendar is used to determine how busy you are, so when you need to focus but you're expected to be available, try blocking off your calendar to get others to leave you alone. While you're at it, schedule specific times for your projects and to-dos so you can work on them freely. If you have to, duck into a conference room, or work from another space in your office, do it. Being unreachable and unavailable can make us more productive and sells others on the fact that we're busy.
Also, avoid checking your email as soon as new messages and notifications arrive. Since most of us don't get points with the boss for a clean inbox, there's no reason to dive in right away, only to be distracted by the influx of work that your inbox probably represents. Instead, get things done, and then take a look. Use a tool like Boomerang if you can't stand unread messages. We've said several times that checking your email first thing is a bad idea, and instead you should start your day with real, productive work that clears something off of your plate. The same applies to the rest of your day.
Don't Just Be Busy, Keep Proof That You Are
When the boss or annoying coworker does catch up with you, you're going to need a shield to protect yourself from them. Even the dreaded drive-by manager — the one who pops in to assign you three new projects and whisk away before you can ask for details — has to acknowledge you if you say "I've got a lot on my plate right now, want to see?" Keep a work diary to defend yourself against those bosses and coworkers, and to hold up to them when they try to call your bluff. Photo by Frederik Rubensson.
Similarly, schedule a weekly review so you always know when you can help and when you can't. One hour every week can help you reconnect with what you've been assigned and why it's important, and save you hours of headache. If you take time to review your work, you'll never get overwhelmed wondering what you should be working on or how much bandwidth you have for more projects. Plus, this is another opportunity to make it clear to others what you're working on and what your priorities are so they don't assign you more work.
Don't Be Afraid to Look Busy, Even When You're Not
Finally, don't be afraid to look busy. We've discussed ways to say no, and other ways to control your workload effectively, but there are still coworkers and bosses who could care less and will try and dump on you anyway. Sadly, many people judge how busy we are by how we look, not by how much work we actually do, so if you don't look stressed or hectic they'll assume you can be loaded up with more work. For those special people, the best techniques involve hacking their mindset, not yours. Image via minoru suzuki (Shutterstock).
One of my favourite tricks to battle distracting coworkers is simple: just wear headphones while working. Your coworkers will get the message. Tackle visible projects that matter to everyone so they're all hesitant to assign you more work (and you have leverage: "I could take that on, but I'd have to stop working on this project first.") Keep a "to-whatever list" of things that float down the line but you know will never actually need to be done — this list is your shield against more work, because you can always hold it up as something you have to get around to, even if you know you never will. Carry around papers or a notebook wherever you go.
Look the part, and make sure everyone looking at you sees a busy person. It involves putting on two faces — the busy worker that everyone sees, and the controlled, relaxed person you'll be on the inside, but at the end of the day, you'll be productive, effective at what you do, and just busy enough that you can handle it all — without worrying others will try and make you do their work too. Good luck!
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Title image by Anna Frajtova(Shutterstock).