How to talk to your boss about having too much work

One side effect of working from home is that supervisors have a hard time seeing how hard their team is working. As a result, you may find that you’re overwhelmed with tasks and that new requests come in faster than you can clear off the old ones.

Don’t just assume that you are supposed to be overwhelmed with work. You really are allowed to talk to your boss about your workload. Here are three things you can do to prepare for that discussion.

Document your tasks

You can’t just go to your boss and say that you have too much work to do. You need to be more specific than that. One thing you’ll want to do is to is to have a clear list of everything on your current to-do list, along with dates by which those tasks need to be completed, estimates of the amount of time it will take to complete those tasks, and other people (from inside or outside the organization) that you depend on in order to complete those tasks.

This list is important, because a big part of solving the workload problem is understanding what trade-offs would need to be made in order for you to have a manageable number of tasks.

You want to estimate the time you’ll spend on the tasks, because it is possible that one reason for your sense of overwork is that you are solving the effort-accuracy trade-off badly. You know that (in general) the more work you put into a task, the better the result you get. Not every task you are given requires a highly polished product, though. Sometimes, you need to just push a project forward without tracking down every contingency, because there are lots of revisions still to be made before the outcome is finalized. A key aspect of balancing workload is determining the right level of work to put into a task.

By giving your boss information about your estimate of how much time a task will take, you’re giving them your estimate of the effort required. Be prepared for your boss to tell you that some of the tasks you have been given can be completed satisfactorily by putting in less work than you think. The trick is to do a job that is good enough and not one that is perfect.

You also want to provide a sense of who else is involved in a project, because that may help your boss determine aspects of scheduling your work that are out of your control. You may feel overworked in part because information you need to complete your tasks depends on the work of others. In that case, your boss may want to work with the whole team to schedule when everyone will complete their tasks to help make your contributions happen more efficiently.

Analyze your workflow

When you document the set of tasks you perform, you should also be clear about where particular requests come from and who you are passing your completed work to. There are two reasons this will help with the discussion.

First, your boss may not be aware of the number of other people who can add things to your to-do list. That may be why your boss doesn’t realize how much is on your plate. This information can also be useful for deciding which people should be able to give you new assignments and how those additions to your task list should be handled.

Second, the position of particular tasks in the overall workflow of the group is valuable, because it helps to determine what other aspects of a project depend on your contribution. This knowledge will help both in setting priorities for the work you do, as well as thinking through who might be able take over some of the work you can’t complete.

Suggest priorities

Assuming the burden of the work you’re doing isn’t just a reflection that you’re working inefficiently; you’re going to have to determine which tasks will get done and which ones will either be put on a back burner or given to someone else. The actual decision may ultimately belong to your boss, but you have some information about your interactions with colleagues, customers, and clients that your boss does not.

So, before you just present your task list and workflow, think about what you would prioritize if the decision was yours. Write down how you would justify that ordering. Bring that information to the meeting.

This list of priorities provides a starting point for the conversation. You may find that your boss goes along with your recommendation. When your boss suggests a different set of priorities than what you came up with, that is valuable information. Orient the discussion to understanding the reasoning behind the decision, because that will give you additional information about how people in supervisory roles think about the workflow of the team.

That knowledge is valuable as you think about the difference between your perspective in your current role and the problems that people a step above you in the organization are focused on. You can use this discussion not just to lighten your current load, but also to learn about the next level positions you may aspire to take on.

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