Seems that the longer I have been working in my organization, the more demands on my time and energy pull me in many directions.  How do I say no in order to set healthy limits?  How do I choose those things that provide maximum benefit to all — me, my colleagues, and my customers?  Those are easy questions to ask, but challenging ones to answer and take action on.

I recently said to a colleague, “If I care about everything, I care about nothing.”  As we unpacked that statement in conversation, I realized that I didn’t literally mean I didn’t care, but that if I am paying equal attention to every possible issue, program, or initiative at work then I am not doing any of them as effectively as I would like.  I have a limited bandwidth.  I can multi-task, but there are diminishing returns.

I believe we all have a saturation point where information overload sets in and we become less effective.  For those of you who are high performers with a strong work ethic, you might find that you attract more and more work to your plate.  People want you involved in their projects, issues, and conflicts.  The more successful you are the more in-demand you become and the more difficult and critical it is for you to say “no”.  Saying “yes” to everything is unsustainable even for the hardest working professional.

So, how do we say “no” effectively in regards to workload?  Here are just a few ideas to get started:

*Write down your current workload and don’t forget to include people/relationships in addition to programs, projects, and tasks

*Prioritize that list

*Do a gut check about your perceived priorities in relationship to the organizational mission and goals.  Are you focusing a lot of time and energy on something that isn’t a priority to others?

*Talk about it

After doing the prep work to get clear on those low priorities that you are ready to pay less attention to or even let go of altogether, you’ll feel some confidence in being ready to talk.  My experience is that my fear of speaking up has always been greater than my boss’s reaction has ever warranted.  In fact, I have usually received support in some way, shape, or form, and sometimes in unexpected ways.  Bosses get it.  They often struggle with the same dilemma given the demands on their own time and energy.

Asking opens up the dialogue.  Recently, I was told that I really needed to hang onto a program role for the near term because people were genuinely relying on me and placing a lot of trust in me.  I didn’t get exactly what I wanted, but what a great thing to hear.  Had I not asked the question I may not have heard how important it was to others.  Hearing that allowed me to care again.  I now had a better alignment of my priorities with the organization’s and instead of dropping that program a different one was taken off of my plate, which I welcomed.

So, if you are feeling overwhelmed at work, trying to care about everything until you can’t care anymore, take a chance.  Don’t wait until you are burned out.  Only you can initiate the change you want, prioritize your work, and have the courage to discuss it.