The Classic Goldilocks Problem: How to Ask Your Boss for Just the Right Amount of Work
In an ideal world, you’d have a perfect amount of work to fill your day. But let’s be real: The odds that you’ll just show up and be met with the exact right number of tasks are slim. It’s a lot more likely that you’ll (at least at times) feel overwhelmed, underutilized, or downright bored.
To make the leap to a project list that fits your work flow, you’ll need to have a conversation with your boss. She may be too busy to notice the signs you assume are obvious (like an 11 PM timestamp on your email), or she may think it’s working for you (because you’ve never told her otherwise and she’s not a mind reader).
So, schedule a time to have a chat and clue her in to what’s really going on. Open communication is the first (read: essential) step toward finding a solution.
1. When You Have Too Much to Do
It’s great that your manager has faith in your abilities, but even on your most productive day after implementing every tip, trick, app, and hack you can find, you’re still drowning in work. I remember crying through my lunch break for an entire week at my first job, because I didn’t know how I was going to get everything done and I thought if I told my boss, he’d regret having hired me.
Well, I had the conversation with him, and instead of realizing my worst fears, it led to us bringing on an intern so I could get some help. Remember, everyone has busier than usual weeks, and some people always look stressed; so unless you tell your manager that this is not fleeting and not your typical expression, he has no way of knowing.
What to Say
The conversation can be intimidating, because you don’t want your supervisor to think that you’re inefficient or not up to doing your job. So, don’t simply say, “I can’t do X,” “I don’t have to time to pitch in on Y,” or “I’ve forgotten what my apartment looks like.” Instead, ask to discuss your overall workload and then walk your supervisor through how long various projects actually take, and any sticking points you’ve identified.
It’s important to think up a few solutions before your meeting (beyond wanting to leave on time). Would you benefit from turning a solo project into a group effort? Is there some technical glitch or outdated procedure that makes a regular task take way longer than it should? Focus on what you can do—on suggestions and innovations—and your boss will be much more receptive to the part of the discussion where you discuss pushing off lower priority tasks.
2. When You Have Too Little to Do
When I was fellowship program manager, one of the questions we’d ask applicants was “What would you do if you didn’t have enough work?” Before they answered, a look often flashed over their face, which seemed to say: Wait, that’s a real problem in the workplace?
It is, and it’s terrible. (Just ask the person who sent me an email a couple of months into her position that said she didn’t know how many more hours she could spend on GChat each day.) Think about it: You spend all that time job searching to find something worthwhile; and then, feeling like you’re doing nothing is demoralizing. Not to mention, if you’re not really doing anything, you know you’re replaceable.
What to Say
Obviously, this is a delicate conversation—especially if you could’ve mentioned all your free time a bit sooner. The trick here is to be honest (but not to put too fine a point on how many hours you’ve spent window shopping on your phone). You want your boss to be impressed with your transparency and your desire to do more.
Again, you’ll want to come armed with ideas. Have you noticed areas that seemed short-staffed? Can you dream up some projects that fit within company goals? Would it make sense for you to spend time on other teams?
Additionally, don’t leave without asking your boss if there’s anywhere she could use extra help. You could go from an underutilized member of the team to MVP.
3. When You Have an Issue With Quality, Not Quantity
Sometimes, you have enough work to stay busy—but it all feels like busy work. Perhaps you feel like you’re always the one asked to handle things that just crop up. Or, maybe your workload made sense a year ago, but now you’d like to be challenged and try something new.
Sure, it’s scary to admit that you’re not really into what you’re doing, and of course, everyone has to accept some grunt work. But a good boss will appreciate you bringing up your desire to grow and be challenged. It shows that you’d rather advance where you are than go elsewhere to develop professionally.
What to Say
Telling your manager you’re interested in new, different projects is a start. But to have a really successful conversation, you’ll want to have thought through what sorts of skills you’d like to be using or developing. Would like more tasks that’ll help you build certain hard or soft skills? Do you want to be trained for management? Would you feel more engaged if you had more interaction with your colleagues?
When you express what sorts of opportunities you’re looking for, you give your boss a framework to consider changes to your role. And, even if he can’t change things up right now, he might be able to tell you about interesting opportunities in the pipeline (and how you can prepare to be the internal candidate).
You can often make a lot of progress on issues with your workload by broaching the subject with your boss. It’ll likely take more than one conversation, so you’ll want to ask to schedule follow-up meetings to check in on how it’s going. Just knowing you two are on the same page can be heartening. And, worst-case scenario, if your boss isn’t receptive, it’s better to know that sooner rather than later.
Photo of work conversation courtesy of Hero Images/Getty.
Sara McCord most often writes about making a better professional impression. She's been published on Mashable (where she was a regular career contributor), as well as Forbes, Newsweek, TIME, Inc., and Business Insider. A Staff Writer/Editor for The Muse, Sara has experience managing programs; recruiting, interviewing, and referring job applicants; building strategic partnerships; advising executive directors; and supporting a national network of volunteers. See more of her writing on her website or follow her on Twitter @sarajmccord.More from this Author