Dear Dave: I am a hopeless Type A person. I think I need to take on large amounts of work that I can never finish, and this is causing me frustration. It is also causing me to turn in some late, inferior work. I overcommit to projects and tasks and I know that a few of my coworkers throw work at me because they know I will always take it on. I have never been able to set limits on what I should do. Help me! – M
Dear M: It is not uncommon for many of us to overload our workdays, only to find ourselves facing a substantial amount of unfinished work at the end of the day. Worse, because we don’t set reasonable limits on how much work we can [do well] each day, we may try to rush things and we end up doing some rather lousy work.
Others may argue with me, but I believe if the choice is between the “quantity” of work we get done and the “quality” of the work we do, I would pick quality every time. I really believe that our coworkers, customers, managers and others at work will forgive us for being a bit late with our work if it is done extremely well.
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We cannot avoid certain tasks, because they may be in our job descriptions or they are things that crop up and we need to address them right away. I get that. However, if we are planning the work we must do today, tomorrow, next week, and so on; we need to be realistic with ourselves and others about just how much we can handle, before our work quality heads south. Simply, we can’t be all things to all people every day.
Most of us – not all of us – work hard and try to accomplish commitments, because the last thing we want to do is disappoint others and ourselves. We witness this in meetings when we or our coworkers just take on everything that is thrown at us. We can term this “the gimmie this or that mentality” and we fear that we will lose our job, or the confidence of our boss, if we don’t take on virtually every task that arises. This is both unrealistic and distorted thinking and will only get us in over our heads.
I think the opposite is when no one will take on anything. If we find ourselves in this “responsibility duck and hide work mentality,” there is a good chance that we can hide our way to unemployment. We all know those people who will never volunteer or accept any work, because it is inconvenient, and they are just lazy. They know the limits they have set on the quantity of work they will do each day and it is next to nothing.
I believe we all know coworkers that repeatedly mess things up, so we certainly never give work to them. It’s like, “Hey, I can’t give Fred anything to do because he will just screw it up.” There is a good chance these coworkers know how much work they can avoid without getting fired – they always cruise under the radar. They are masters at showing up and doing nothing. They know their limits and their bar is quite low – and they are OK with that.
Your outer limits
The core question for you is, how can you set limits on the work you do each day before you start to disappoint others, miss deadlines, do inferior work, feel depleted, and lose your sense of purpose? In short, you must set your “work quantity bar” as high as you can before your work looks shabby. Only you know these “outer limits” – identify them.
To get a realistic sense of what you can and can’t do, start by reviewing your contributions from the past year. Set up an audit of what work was done on time and held as much quality as you could muster. Think about times – possibly every day – when you were running around “like a chicken with its head cut off” and nothing was really getting done. Plus. some of your coworkers saw you as a “work dump easy target,” mainly because you let yourself be one.
To be frank, if your manager did not spot your tendency to take on everything, I would say that your manager is not doing their job. A great part of management is giving the right work to the right people and considering how much people can do. Set up a meeting with your manager and explain that you don’t know when to say “No” and that you stuff 15 hours of work into an 8-hour day – if there are such things as 8-hour days anymore.
Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at email@example.com. Conrad is an associate professor of business at Augsburg University in Rochester.