Dear Lifehacker, I've overloaded myself with work. I have a full-time job, thankfully, but I've taken on freelance work to pay the bills. This month I've found myself with too much to do. I'm supposed to help a friend move, and I have a freelance project I know I won't have time to finish. How can I back out of some of my obligations so I don't burn out? Sincerely, Languishing Labourer
You don't always have to back out of your obligations. Sometimes, you only need to re-prioritise your time and set new deadlines. You can't always do this, of course, and you may need to withdraw from a commitment. Let's talk about your other options first and then how to bow out gracefully as a last resort.
Re-Prioritise Your Time
To re-prioritise your time, you just need to figure out how you can move things around to make them easier to handle. Let's use your examples: you have a full-time job, a time-consuming freelance gig, and a friend who needs your help moving on the weekend. Every one of these items creates stress, and, when combined, you end up feeling burnt out. Your full-time job takes up most of your week, the freelance gig prevents you from taking a break when you're not at home, and helping a friend move kills part of your weekend. When you have too many obligations, you end up with too little free time and feel overwhelmed. When re-prioritising your time, you want to create what your current schedule lacks: breaks.
How do you introduce breaks into a schedule that's stuffed with too many activities? You have a few options:
- Take a day (or two) off from work. Presuming you have paid (or unpaid) leave, most jobs won't make it difficult to take a very short amount of time off. If you can't, utilise a sick day or two. Regardless of how you do it, take this time off and don't use it to get other work done. You won't feel better if you have to take time off work to work.
- Extend a freelance deadline. Sometimes people miss deadlines, so you should consider missing yours with a freelance gig. That said, don't wait until the last minute in hopes you'll finish on time. Call your client, say you need more time to finish the project, and set new expectations. If your project has multiple deliverables, ask what the client wants first and prioritise those needs when setting these new deadlines. Yes, it hurts your credibility to push past the expected deadline, but you'll hurt yourself far more by simply missing the deadline or backing out of the project altogether. If you request more time and stick to your new commitment, your client will quickly forgive your small error in time management.
- Cut your favours in half. While it sucks to prioritise work over your friends, sometimes you have to do that. If you don't want to back out of a promise to your friend, consider negotiating the terms. Helping a friend move doesn't require your presence the entire time (in most circumstances), so you could offer to come a little later and leave a little earlier. If other friends intend to help with the move, altering your commitment won't create much of a burden. Talk to your friend, explain that you're feeling burnt out, and say you need a little time to yourself to avoid going crazy. You still want to help, but at a somewhat lesser capacity. Find out when you're needed the most and show up then.
You don't have to choose just one option. If you feel especially burnt out and need to create more free time for your mental sanity, combine these options. A day off from work, pushing a few deadlines and lowering your commitments to your friends can all reduce your stress without the need to back out of an obligation.
Back Out Gracefully
When re-prioritising your time can't solve the problem and you need to back out of an obligation, you need to do so gracefully and, in many cases, have a plan. This goes for both friends and clients alike.
You can't back out of your full-time job without some major consequences, so let's assume you plan to either say no to a friend, a client or both. With the friend, talk to them and let them know that you can't help them anymore and help them find someone who can. If you don't know anyone, ask what you can do to help in the future. Offer to help them unpack or paint the walls later when you have more time. It's OK to be honest with your friend and tell them you're too burnt out to help. Most friends will understand, especially if you try to help them find someone else. With friends, you want to demonstrate that you do care about their needs, but you have to put yours first in this particular instance. You don't necessarily need to succeed in helping a friend, but your intentions will go a long way when you have to bow out.
Some of the same things apply to clients. When you back out of a commitment, you need to help them find someone to finish the job. Backing out and not doing this will damage your reputation significantly, so before you back out make sure you've talked to colleagues to find out if anyone else can help. Once you have a plan to replace yourself, explain the situation to your client and tell them how you're going to fix the problem. While they might come across as disappointed and even have doubts about a replacement, they may also feel relieved that someone will actually finish the job. You never want to bow out if you don't have to, but if you do you need to have a plan in place to avoid much bigger problems for yourself.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Everyone has to back out of something at some point in your life. We can't always manage our time perfectly, so pay attention to the times when you screwed up so you can avoid making the same errors in the future. Nobody's perfect, so use these moments to learn where you went wrong. You will rarely make a mistake that you can't recover from, so don't worry too much about what will happen when you need to back out of an obligation. If it doesn't go well, you can analyse that failure and improve next time. If you make a plan and approach this problem with your friend or client's best interests at heart, however, you should manage just fine. Good luck!
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