Career Advice Workplace

How to Avoid Taking On Too Much at Work

By: Kaylyn McKenna
Sep 14, 2020 • 7 min read

Understand Your Own Limits

Take a look at what you currently have on your plate, both personally and professionally. Consider the time commitments and the mental burden each task will take. For example, if you are introverted, a presentation or conference may drain your energy quite a bit quicker. This will leave you less energy to take on extra work immediately after. Or if you are going to school and working part-time, you’ll want to consider your academic workload for the week. Help out when you can. However, don’t commit to something if it is going to negatively impact your work or cause you an excessive amount of stress or exhaustion. Here is how to avoid taking on too much at work. 

taking on too much

Be Organized

Keep your planner or calendar up to date and keep a running list of work deadlines and current projects. Often people overcommit because they forget about something that they already agreed to do. You don’t want to be the person that agrees to stay late at work and then has to back out because they already agreed to go work on a group project with their classmates and forgot about it. Nor do you want to agree to help someone with their work project and then end up not being able to complete your own work.

How to Say No

In most cases, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Listen to their request and respond respectfully. If you cut someone off while they are speaking or reject their request rudely, they likely won’t respond well. Be respectful, empathetic, and sincere in your response. Emphasis that you would like to help them, but may be unable to this time.

Avoid noncommittal Language

Similarly, avoid using noncommittal Language. If you don’t think you’ll be able to fulfill the request, be honest about that. This is better than saying something like “I’ll try” or “maybe.” A lot of people will take a noncommittal response like that as a yes and will not create a backup plan in case you are not able to do what they asked. Also, remember that “No.” is a complete sentence. If you don’t want to share the reason that you are saying no, then keep it short and straightforward. Making false excuses tends to go badly.

taking on too much

Know When to Explain Yourself

Understand when you need to justify your choice, and when it’s fine to keep things vague or brief. If your supervisor has asked you to complete a project that you don’t have time for, you’ll want to explain what you currently have on your plate. Explain why these tasks need to take precedent. Or, ask them if they want to swap this task out for something else on your to-do list. If you’ve been asked to do something that you don’t know how to do or aren’t comfortable with, let them know.

Seek Accommodations if Needed

Also, remember that you don’t need to share your personal health information with coworkers. So, if you are being asked to do something that you cannot do or need accommodations for due to a disability, speak privately with your manager or human resources. However, if a coworker asks you to cover a shift and you don’t want to or aren’t able to, don’t feel required to tell them why you can’t cover the shift.  It’s perfectly acceptable to simply say that you have another obligation or aren’t available. Whether you have class, a social engagement, or simply just need a day to rest, it’s ok to say no, and you shouldn’t feel guilty.

taking on too much

Provide an Alternative

When you can, give a suggestion or offer an alternative method for you to fulfill their request. This shows that you genuinely do want to help out. This is true even if you don’t have time to help out in the manner that they initially requested. If you can’t cover a shift for a coworker but know another coworker that wants more hours, connect the two of them. If you don’t have time today to work on something, ask if tomorrow would be alright. Or, if someone asked you for your help because you’re particularly good at something, offer to show them how to do it or look over it when it’s done. You can be helpful without committing yourself to something that you don’t have the time to do. It can also be an excellent opportunity to work as a team and share your skills and knowledge.

Ask For Help When You Need It

Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are getting overwhelmed. If you have good relationships with others at work, your coworkers will likely try their best to help you out unless they are also at capacity. If no-one is available to help you or it’s a larger problem, communicate with your supervisor and let them know what you need. They can assign someone to help you or take something off of your plate. Or, help you prioritize your current tasks and step in themselves to support you.

taking on too much


Overall, just be sure to communicate. Let your manager know if you’re feeling rushed or overwhelmed before it starts to negatively impact the quality of your work or your mental health. It’s easy to feel pressured to do it all and say yes to everything, but sometimes the quality of your output is more important than the quantity.

Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

Every workplace has a workaholic over-achiever, avoid falling into the trap of comparing yourself to them. Remember that everyone is different and that taking on too much usually doesn’t work out well in the long run. That person may be highly productive now, but will likely suffer from burnout later on. Pace yourself at a productive but realistic pace, and don’t worry about being the fastest worker or putting in the most hours. Focus on your own work, goals, and strengths.

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