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Overstretching your mental and physical resources is a common occurrence for many of us, especially those who have trouble saying no to extra tasks on top of a full workload. Avoiding burnout at work can then involve trying to manage expectations while at the same time not seeming like you’re slacking or being a team player. The solution isn’t necessarily to start saying “no” to everything, but rather to be cleverer about how you respond to requests for extra work.

Here are some of the best ways of managing expectations around what you can take on when you’re already at 100% capacity.

Take a more realistic view of your capabilities

A major professional issue most people suffer from is overestimation of their own capabilities, sometimes dramatically so. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as comparing your daily average to the occasions when you were super productive and seeing the latter as the norm rather than an exception.

Another reason can be wanting to impress others, such as clients or management, and figuring that your brain and body will get in line once the pressure of actually delivering on promises comes on. Naturally, this cycle of overestimation and pressure makes avoiding burnout at work even harder.

Therefore, managing expectations can apply as much to oneself as to others. A good way of getting over this self-inflicted obstacle is to actually time how long your most common tasks take. For example, for an entire week, time how long it takes you to get through your emails in the morning or create project report updates. Then average these times out to get a more realistic idea of what you can get done in an hour, or a day.

Put the ball back in their court

If you have a manager who thinks nothing of assigning you even more tasks even though they could just check their project management software and see your plate is full, a useful solution is to reflect the responsibility back onto them. You can do this by explaining what your current schedule is and asking which tasks they would like you to postpone so you can take on the new work. For example:

  • “That will be no problem, I can get that done by the end of next week if I postpone Project X until after I finish. Is that what I should do?”

Negotiate and explain what you will need

There’s an adage that “everything in business has a price,” and while that may not always be true, if your goal is avoiding burnout at work then it can be good to set that as your price. If someone wants something done, take it as a negotiation, explain your situation and schedule, and if they really want it done in that space of time, then you will require either extra time or resources. For example:

  • “My schedule is full at the moment, but if you approve, I can seek assistance from another team member or contractors and push back my current project by the necessary days to get it done.”
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Rehearse what you’re going to say

A common and miserable situation is when a manager or colleague catches you out of the blue and asks for help with something (or even worse if they drop it in at the end of an otherwise unrelated and productive conversation). Our instant reflex can be to say “yes” before even thinking about it.

The best way of countering this is to role-play the situation beforehand, going through possible requests and your reactions to them. One of the best and easiest to implement is to buy yourself time to get out of making a snap-decision. Try saying something like:

  • “That sounds interesting, but I’m unsure of my availability. Can I check that and get back to you?”
  • “I’d certainly like to help, but I can’t give you an answer right now. I’ll have to check how my schedule is set first.”

Set your boundaries

Protecting your time and avoiding burnout at work due to being overly accommodating won’t necessarily show immediate results. Often it will take time for people to understand where your boundaries are so they won’t waste their own time by trying to cross them.

An example of this is replying to emails outside of work hours. If you make a habit of responding at all hours, then people will assume that you don’t mind working in those hours and continue to communicate with you.

Whether with emails or any other aspect of your work-life, setting your limits and letting others know what they are is a vital part of managing expectations others may have.

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