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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

What to Say When Your Schedule Is Too Busy

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Many of us have way too much on our plates right now. To-do lists grow by the minute, calendars are filled to the brim, and you can’t seem to catch up on emails. All of this can be overwhelming and lead to burnout. It also illustrates the need to set more boundaries.

“Workplaces have become extremely competitive, so people take on more and more projects,” says Neeta Murthy, managing director and CEO of Rekindle Group, a professional development program for women. “And there are the day-to-day demands of running a home. People are just stretched.”

The stats don't disagree. A Future Forum report published in 2023 found that 42% of employees are burned out—2% more than in 2021.

Feeling overwhelmed and burned out is often rooted in the struggle to say “no,” says Nicole Erkfitz, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director at AMFM Healthcare. “This can stem from pressure to conform, being in a role that undervalues one’s abilities, or an internal drive toward perfectionism, which contributes to a reluctance to turn down additional tasks.”

She adds that it’s essential to recognize your limits and set boundaries, and that starts with saying “no” more often, especially to extra things that won’t help you advance your goals or make you happy. Doing so will improve your mental health and general satisfaction at work.

Here are some ways to pare down your responsibilities and get comfortable saying “no” in a firm but professional way.

How to tell if you truly have too many responsibilities

When everyone you know also seems overloaded with home and work responsibilities, you might think your situation is the norm. You may wonder: Do I actually have too many things to do, or am I psyching myself out about a couple of tasks that I just don’t want to do?

“If an employee finds themselves working more than their scheduled work hours on a regular basis and they are truly using their time doing work, then it probably means they have too much on their plate,” says Laura Magnuson, a therapist and vice president of clinical engagement at Talkspace.

Other signs you have too many responsibilities are if you’re missing deadlines, feeling like your schedule isn’t doable, or seeing your performance slip, Erkfitz says. Furthermore, feeling like you have to drag yourself to work, lacking energy and job satisfaction, feeling disillusioned, or struggling to concentrate are signs of burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic.

If none of this sounds familiar, you might be psyching yourself out, and Magnuson says you need to understand where these thoughts are coming from.

“Is it that you don’t understand your assignment or lack key details required to complete it?” she says. “Or is it that you have anxiety about trying to get the assignment done in a perfect way?”

What to do when your schedule is too busy

Setting boundaries is critical when your schedule is packed. Murthy suggests stepping back to examine whether a task, meeting, or commitment aligns with your priorities and values. Here are some ways to keep from getting overwhelmed: 

Trim the fat from your to-do list and calendar

Start by looking at your personal and work calendars for the next month and ask yourself:

  • What doesn’t need to happen now?
  • What doesn’t need to happen at all?
  • What doesn’t need to be done by me?
  • What’s on here only because I think I should do it, not because it’s necessary or I want to?

Be as ruthless as possible. Even if a meeting is on your calendar, are you required to attend? Perhaps someone on your team could attend in your place, or you could ask for an email update afterward.

Same with your to-do list. Murthy recommends delegating tasks to others and removing unnecessary things that don’t align with your goals.

Schedule time to get the most important tasks done

You may feel the pressure to constantly multitask to get everything done. Magnuson suggests blocking off time on your calendar to do your most important tasks, one thing at a time.

“For example, blocking out your calendar to respond to emails at certain times of the day and others to get different tasks done can be more efficient than going back and forth between the two,” she says. You may need to turn off your Slack or email notifications to focus.

Set aside time in your calendar for you, too. If you’ll have a busy work week, mark “free evening” for a couple of nights—it’s a helpful reminder to relax when you’re tempted to overcommit.

Cancel or punt, if you have to

It’s better not to agree to things to begin with, but Erkfitz says canceling commitments can be necessary for your mental health and to help you reprioritize. However, if you’re always canceling and not following through with what you’ve agreed to, it might suggest that you’re not dependable.

Frequent canceling can also signal you’re overcommitting yourself and that you need to reflect on your capacity, Erkfitz says.

“Communication is key when canceling meetings, appointments, and commitments,” Magnuson says. Done right, most people will understand and be just fine with a nice, “I’m really slammed right now—mind if we push our lunch date out a few weeks?”

Talk to someone

When your workload is too much and your day is overflowing, talking to your supervisor might help, Magnuson says. They may be able to reassign projects or help you prioritize or delegate.

Talking to a mental health professional might help, too, she adds. They can discuss coping strategies for setting boundaries and dealing with perfectionism and procrastination that might be getting in your way.

Start defaulting to “no”

Murthy acknowledges that saying “no” can be scary, especially when you’re not used to it.. You may worry that you’re letting someone down or that you won’t be liked, but setting boundaries keeps you from getting overwhelmed.

Getting comfortable saying “no” may take practice, Erkfitz says. Start by declining events or projects that you don’t want to do in your personal life, and then start saying “no” more often at work.

Evaluate each request for your time. Obviously, some are part of your job’s requirements, but, for anything extra, agree only to those commitments that help you achieve your career or personal goals or that you truly want to do.

It’s normal to feel guilty saying “no,” but Murthy says the asker has to expect that it’s a possibility. “Otherwise, they’re pretty much telling you to do it, not asking you.”

How to politely say you're too busy 

Always be clear, professional, and respectful when you say “no,” but don’t be apologetic, Murthy says. You don’t need to justify it. Here’s what to say when your schedule is busy:

  • “I’m looking at everything on my schedule, and I simply can’t take on another project.”
  • “I’d really like to say yes; however, my other priorities need my time right now, and I wouldn’t be able to get you what you need in the appropriate time frame.”
  • “I appreciate your consideration for this task. Currently, my schedule is fully committed to existing priorities, and I wouldn't be able to give this new project the attention it deserves.”
  • “After reviewing my current workload, I realize that I can't commit to new responsibilities at the level of quality I strive for. Could we consider my involvement at a later date?”
  • “I'm honored to be considered for this project. However, to maintain the integrity of my current commitments, I must decline additional tasks at this moment.”
  • “Thank you for the opportunity. At this point, my focus must remain on my current deliverables. I'm at capacity and concerned that overcommitting could affect my performance.”
  • “I’m currently at a point where additional responsibilities would exceed my capacity. Given my workload, I need to be mindful of my limits and respectfully decline.”
  • “Thanks for the invite, but I’m confident that the rest of the parties in the meeting can [move forward/make decisions/brainstorm] without me. Let me know if there’s anything you need my input on after the meeting, and I’m happy to weigh in.”
  • “I normally find that this conversation can be hashed out over email. Here are the next action steps on my end. Let me know if you have any questions after taking a look, and I’m happy to jump on a call then!”
  • “Unfortunately, the next few weeks are really hectic for me, and working on this over email would probably move things forward faster. Then, if there’s anything we need to meet about after that, can we schedule some time?”
  • “I need to say ‘no,’ because my week is already quite full, and I know it wouldn’t be responsible for me to add anything new to my plate.”

If you’re thinking about this and feeling a little guilty, remember: You don’t have to default to “no” for everything forever. This, like saying “yes” to everything that comes your way, is a season. However, once you try it out, you might just find that only saying “yes” to the things that really matter is a way of life you want to stick to.

Adrian Granzella Larssen wrote the original version of this article.