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How to manage your workload and avoid burnout

Taking on too much work is a recipe for burnout and drowns out your key skills. Narrow your focus, and learn not to overextend yourself.

How to manage your workload and avoid burnout
[Photo: Ridofranz/iStock]

Those who crave career success tend to take on way too much work.

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Just earlier this week, I was talking to an entrepreneur who runs an agency. He told me how exhausted he was from managing his business—but he only had two clients. “Okay, we need to talk about this,” I told him. “Because if you can’t handle two clients, how are you going to manage 10? Or 15?”

It doesn’t matter if you’re a business owner, a consultant, or an employee: overworking is a common issue.

Maybe you put in 10 or 12 hours a day, and it still seems like there’s too much work to do. I get it. For the first several years of my consulting career, I was constantly behind the ball because I always bit off more than I could chew.

But putting in 80-hour weeks only leads to burn out. Until you can narrow your focus and manage your workload, you’re going to feel overwhelmed. And it starts with outlining your specific role.

Clearly define the job requirements

Let’s say you’re hired as an assistant and are supposed to answer emails, pick up the phone, and schedule meetings. But somewhere along the line, your boss asks you to start grabbing the morning coffee. You’re soon in charge of bagel Fridays and planning all the office events.

Suddenly, you only have two hours a day to do your actual job—and the work is piling up.

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If you’re taking on way more than your core responsibilities, it’s time to revisit your job description. Figure out exactly what you’re responsible for, outline those responsibilities to your boss, and make it clear you won’t take on work outside of that.

The purpose here is to refocus your efforts on doing the job you were hired to do.

Defining your focus also applies to consultants or business owners. With every new client, ensure that you have your goals and deliverables clearly defined from the get-go. That way, if a task extends past the scope of your previously outlined work, you can charge more for it—or decline to take it on altogether.

Say “no” to tasks that go beyond your responsibilities

You become inefficient when you say “yes” to everything.

If your first instinct is to jump on any and all opportunities that come your way, do yourself a favor: don’t. When you accept every single job, you’re overwhelming yourself and drowning out your key skills.

For example, if a client asked me to build them a spaceship, I would firmly say, “No.” While I could probably hire a team of rocket scientists, it would entail months of sleepless nights and perhaps a few nervous breakdowns. It’s not the best use of my time—or my skills.

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Now, it’s easy enough to draw boundaries if you haven’t committed to a job yet. But if you’ve already taken on a client and are feeling overwhelmed by too much work, you’ll have to use a different approach.

Get into a problem-solving mode

Maybe your client is asking too much of you, or maybe you’ve overpromised on your own. Either way, you don’t have the time or the resources to get your work done. That’s a problem, and it’s on you to fix it.

The simplest way to problem-solve when someone is taking advantage of you is to put your foot down. Ask to renegotiate your price, and clearly outline your deliverables in a new contract. If they’re an especially huge energy-suck, don’t be afraid to cut off the bad apples to make room for fresh ones.

There are professional ways to do this. You can say, “Just to let you know, I’m restructuring my organization. Don’t worry—I won’t leave you hanging. We’ll phase out over a 90-day period, and after that, I’d be happy to put you in touch with some trusted connections.”

But what if the job is great, and you just overextended yourself?

People misjudge their bandwidth all the time, especially new entrepreneurs. If you’ve already agreed to take on too much work, you might have to take a few hits in order to correct the situation. Maybe you have to hire outside people to help you out, or maybe you have to work late into the night for a few weeks to deliver what you promised.

If you absolutely can’t manage the work, tell your manager or the client as soon as possible. Give them at least a month’s notice that you won’t make the deadline. It’s not going to look good on you, but they’ll appreciate the honesty. Then, you can work together to find a solution and finish the project.

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Personally, I’ve never lost work for being honest. But I have lost clients because the deadline came and I couldn’t deliver. While it never feels great when that happens, there is a way to handle it.

Don’t become too emotionally attached

Business relationships are like any other relationships: you can’t let people walk all over you. Do the absolute best work you can, but don’t let bosses or clients take advantage of you.

Just try not to get upset if things don’t work out.

A business relationship rarely lasts for the entirety of your career. You’re going to lose clients. Contracts are going to run out. People may choose to work with someone else. But no matter what happens, you don’t want to burn bridges or get emotional. Sometimes, business comes back around a year down the line. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Either way, there are thousands of jobs and clients out there.

Successful entrepreneurs and employees are usually people-pleasers; it’s what keeps them hard-working and motivated. But when you can set boundaries for yourself and avoid taking on too much work, your results will be better—and people will respect you more for it.

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This article originally appeared in Minutes and is reprinted with permission.

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