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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to Say "Help! I’m Drowning in Work"—and Still Be Calm and Professional

“Hey! How’s that project coming along? Great. Just one more little thing that we’ll need to add to the list...”

“One more little thing.”

Translation: a significant, time-consuming project that you must miraculously complete (in addition to all of your other work), without going overtime or requiring extra pay, obviously.

“We need to add...”

Translation: “You need to do.”


You might be the coolest, calmest cucumber on the planet—but when someone tries to heap additional work onto your plate when you’re already overloaded, it’s enough to make anyone wilt like a day-old plate of salad.

The next time someone tries to put more work on your shoulders—when you’re already at max capacity—here’s how to respond:

If It’s Your Supervisor or Manager

Respond by writing (or saying):

OK! I can definitely tackle this, but I’d like to review something before I proceed.

Right now my current priorities are: [list them in order].

Would you like this new assignment to be my top priority?

If so, that’s no problem, but it means that—since we’re pushing several other items down the list—all of my other projects will get completed slightly later.

I can create a timeline of when everything will be completed, if that’s helpful to you.


If It’s a Colleague

Respond by writing (or saying):

Hey! I can definitely help you with this. However, right now I am working on a different project that’s a top priority for my department.

I’m working on a deadline and I really need to stay focused and keep progressing. (Think: Rocky Balboa training montage.)

I’ll be able to switch gears and attend to your request [at / on] [time / date].

Thank you for understanding!

If It’s a Client

Respond by writing (or saying):

Hey! Thanks for [writing / stopping by].

I can definitely help you with this. But first, let’s talk about the other items that I’m currently working on for you.

Right now I’m working on: [list them in order].

If we add this new piece to the list, I’ll need to bill you for an additional [$$$].

It also means that the timeline we initially agreed upon will need to shift a bit. [describe the new dates, timing, etc]

Are you OK with the additional cost and new timeline?

If so, [tell me / write back to say]: “Green light! Go!” and I’ll be off to the races like FloJo at the Olympic Games.

And a Common Sense Reminder

Adapt these scripts to suit your natural speaking or writing style, your company’s communication policies, and the intensity of the situation. (If someone is asking for your help with something that’s a genuine crisis, these scripts might not be appropriate.)

Remember, too, that whoever is making this “ridiculous and unreasonable” request is probably just as swamped and stressed out as you are. Try to be compassionate.

And no matter how your colleagues choose to communicate with you (rudely, coldly, crazily) you can still be professional and polite when you respond. Because you’re a pro—and that’s how you roll.

As the poet Avicebron once wrote:

“The test of good manners is to be patient with the bad ones.”

That’s exactly what this stressful situation is: a test of your manners and professionalism.

Be patient. Stay cool. Speak firmly.

You can ace it.

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