You look down at your to-do list and your heart starts racing. Why? You’ve just had that brutal realization that there is absolutely no way you’re going to be able to get everything done.
Even if you shut your office door, skip happy hour, pull an all-nighter, and crank up your most inspirational productivity playlist, there will still be unfinished tasks lingering on that pesky list of yours.
Put simply, you’ve over-promised—meaning you’ve found yourself over-extended and totally overwhelmed.
Now what? What can you realistically do, other than put your head down on your desk and silently resent your ridiculous workload?
First and foremost, we find ourselves with unrealistic workloads due to something called the planning fallacy. (also sometimes referred to as the optimism bias). Put simply, we’re pretty bad at understanding how long things take us.
Our crappy time management skills aside, there’s another reason we all pile our plates too full: It feels good to say “yes” to people.
Joining a group initiates neural circuits (the same ones as when we fall in love, actually!) that cause oxytocin levels to surge. Those increased levels make you feel great, so you’ll be all the more likely to repeat that behavior over and over again. After all, it’s a whole lot better than your brain's reaction to negative stimuli—like hearing the word “no.”
Now that you know that your overwhelming workload is a result of your brain playing tricks on you, what happens next? You can’t rewind time and say “no” instead of “yes.” So, how can you realistically cope with that pile of tasks that you know you won’t get done?
First things first, you need to zone in on the things that are actually urgent. What on your to-do list really needs to be done today, and what’s just hanging out there with a not-so-firm deadline?
Grab a highlighter and prepare to do some major destruction to that list of yours. Highlight only (yes, only) the things that you absolutely need to have finished by the end of the day. That will allow you to turn your attention to those do-or-die items that should be at the very top of your priorities list.
You’re now left with a simplified and streamlined to-do list. It helps, but you’re quickly realizing that there are still far too many time-pressing tasks taunting you—this still isn’t doable.
At this point, take a look at what you could potentially delegate to other people. Do you have a direct report that could take one of those assignments off of your plate? If you’re not in a management role, perhaps you could throw yourself on the mercy of one of your colleagues (with a promise that you’ll return the favor if and when they need it).
The key to pushing back a deadline is to do it sooner rather than later. It’s a lot more professional to request an extension before that task is due, rather than hours (or even days) after it was originally supposed to be submitted.
Rest assured, there’s a way to do this in a way that’s polite and professional. It’ll just involve swallowing your pride and admitting to the fact that you bit off far more than you can chew.
The natural tendency to pile your plate full can be difficult to combat. Once you make it through that overwhelming period, take some steps to ensure that your workload remains at a more doable level (at least most of the time) moving forward.
For starters, it’s a wise idea to begin tracking your time in order to get a more realistic handle on how long specific projects and tasks take you. That’ll override your optimism bias and keep your expectations for your own productivity in check.
Life gets busy, and we all fall victim to the siren song of over-promising every now and then. Follow these steps and you’ll be able to make your way to the other side of that lengthy to-do list—with as few tears and tantrums as possible.
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