Don’t Want to Overcommit? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I work in a call center that delivers customer service for highly technical products. I have been a supervisor for about six months. I have a great manager and a great team.

My problem is that I overcommit. I work much longer hours than I should. Everything I have read on the topic of managing tasks and time suggests I need to get better at saying no.

I am confused, because I have been told that one of the reasons I was promoted was because I am so helpful, jump in to fix things, and generally go the extra mile. I see it as a success strategy. I watch as some of my peers duck responsibility—one of them actually has acquired the nickname “Teflon” because nothing ever seems to end up on his desk. I don’t want that to be me.

How do I know when the extra mile is one mile too many? How do I know what to say no to?

Overcommitted

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Dear Overcommitted,

I would bet that your manager is grateful for you. You make some excellent points—going above and beyond is indeed one of the habits that can ensure job security and career growth.

“Teflon’s” reputation is a cautionary tale you have taken to heart. At some point you will hit the wall and have to draw a line. You are clearly close enough to reaching your limit to be asking these very good questions.

You say your problem is that you overcommit. What does that mean? Do you take on work that should really be done by others? Do you end up doing things that aren’t your job, or that you aren’t good at, or that you hate? Is it that you are helping others, or is it that the task is critical and there isn’t anyone else to do it? Or is it really because you don’t know how to say no?

These distinctions are critical because if you are, in fact, being used by others, that cannot stand. Slackers have radar for people who will bail them out—so you must be clear about the criteria you use to decide whether you will cheerfully pitch in. If you do need to decline, you can practice simply saying that you have other plans or you are not available. If you are allowing others to take advantage of you, you will eventually come to resent it. You can try on a few ways to say no by practicing these statements out loud:

  • I’ve made other plans; I’m so sorry I can’t help you out this time.
  • I’m currently focused on completing a report and can’t commit to anything else right now.
  • I think _______ (someone else) might be better qualified to assist you with that.
  • I’m not available right now; I’m sorry I can’t help with that.
  • I wish I could help, but unfortunately, my current workload doesn’t allow for additional tasks outside my responsibilities.

Getting comfortable with and being ready to decline something that isn’t your job (especially if it doesn’t sound like fun) will make it easier for you go the extra mile in ways that make sense.

When trying to make up your mind about what to say no to, it might be helpful to consider the criteria for what you say yes to. These include but are not limited to:

  • Helping someone who is having a rough day, especially if you know they would do the same for you.
  • Doing tasks that are interesting, that you will learn something from, or that are fun and easy for you.
  • Jumping in to assist when it looks like your boss will end up holding the bag, and she is already overloaded.
  • Volunteering for tasks that will enable you to meet other people in the organization and expand your network.

Using this kind of litmus test will ensure that you are investing your time and energy wisely, not just indiscriminately trying to please everyone.

If you find yourself unable to say no even when you want to, ask yourself what core need you are getting met by doing this. It might be that you need to be liked. Or you need to be the hero. Or you need to avoid conflict. If so, you will want to build your awareness of that need and find ways to get it met that won’t hurt you in the long run.

You say you work longer hours than you should. Who is the judge of that? The only rule around this is the one you make. The question is: what is the cost to you? If you have a lot of energy and don’t have a ton of commitments outside of work, maybe working long hours is appropriate for you right now. It probably won’t always be that way, but if isn’t hurting you I am not sure what the problem is. Are you disappointing family members or friends? Are you forgoing proper rest, exercise, or healthy meals? The key is to articulate your own standards for what you need to stay healthy, whole, and energized.

If others in your life are complaining about your work hours, find out what their complaint really means. Do they want to spend more time with you? If this is the case, ask yourself if you want to spend more time with them and make a choice. But if others are applying their rules to you, frankly, it is just an opinion—and most likely an unsolicited one. It is meaningless. Sometimes people who enjoy working a lot are threatening to people who don’t. I know one young woman who left a job because her boss said her work ethic was making the rest of the team feel bad! Just when I think nothing can surprise me, that sure did.

So who is the judge and what is the judgment based on? Answer that, and you will have your own rules for how much work is the right amount for you. Clarify your own standards. Define what you say yes to. Defend yourself against people who see you as a softy. Be your own judge and set your own rules.

Don’t worry, you will never be a “Teflon.” I promise.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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