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‘Is My Workload Insane, or Am I Bad at My Job?’

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Dear Boss,

How do you tell the difference between an unreasonable workload and unsatisfactory planning skills?

I’ve been working in my first office job for just under two years. Our work is season-based, and when we’re in season, it’s super busy. When we’re not, it’s super dead. Or at least it used to be. My first year here, my workload was manageable — I usually had plenty to do, but once in a while there were slow days.

This past year, my workload has increased to a point where it feels totally unmanageable. There was no slow period between seasons. I can’t even keep track of everything I’m supposed to do, let alone do it all. In addition to everything I was already doing, my boss has started requiring me to spend most of my time in our customer-facing area. When I’m up there, almost all of my time and attention is taken up answering the phone and helping our student workers, but the rest of my workload hasn’t been reduced to accommodate this.

I feel like I’m drowning. Every day feels like being one level higher in Tetris than you can actually handle. Every day is an eight-hour-long series of crises and other things that need to be dealt with immediately, plus a laundry list of things that have been put off from previous days/weeks in order to deal with the continuous barrage of high-priority stuff. 

I talked to my boss about this earlier this year, and her response was just “I need you to do all of this stuff.” Now, any time I happen to catch a break — like getting to work at my own desk instead of being up in the customer-facing area — she makes a big show of pointing it out, as if I’m a whiny baby for wanting to be in an environment that allows me to do what is expected of me.

It also doesn’t help that my boss is not as clear a communicator as she thinks she is. When she assigns me work, I’m never given a deadline (even if I ask, it’s usually not an actual date). I’ll find out it’s due when she comes to my desk and asks me where it is. She assigns projects without providing guidelines, or sometimes even without actually assigning them — she’ll just mention something offhand like “I bet so-and-so will come up with a nice spreadsheet we can use for this” and then wonder why it isn’t done a week or two later. I’m not the only person on my team who has expressed frustration with this, so I don’t think it’s all a case of my being poorly organized. But I’m willing to admit that I am probably not managing my workflow as well as someone more experienced would.

I’m actively job-hunting, for this and a lot of other reasons, but I don’t want to get a new job only to end up feeling like I’m drowning again when things get busy. Because this is my first office job, I feel like my perspective is a little out of whack. I can’t tell if I really am being asked to do too much, or if I need to develop better organizing and planning skills to better manage my workload. I suppose this is something that would be hard for you to judge without having all the details! But what’s it like for other people? Do people generally have some time during the day where they can sit quietly and prioritize their projects, plan out what they need to do for the week, put reminders in their calendar, etc.? Or is it not unusual for work to feel like a nonstop deluge? It seems like everyone around me — my boss, people at my level on other teams, other people at or above my boss’s level — is able to work at a much more leisurely pace than I can, and I can’t help feeling that this isn’t normal.

It varies. There are definitely jobs where there’s always high-priority work to be done and rarely enough time to do it all. But the key is, when that happens in healthy, high-functioning environments, people recognize that you still need to carve out time for planning and prioritizing and managing your calendar, and they know it’s not an optional luxury that can be cut in order to make room for other things.

There might be certain times where time to plan and think need to be cut — like an especially busy day or week, or even few weeks — but cutting out that time isn’t something you can do long-term.
When you’ve got deadlines pressing down on you, it can seem like it’ll save time to just keep going without stopping to breathe, but it actually costs you more time in the long run because it makes you more likely to prioritize incorrectly and overlook important things, and you won’t have time to figure out the most effective (and efficient) ways to get things done. Healthy workplaces recognize that and encourage people to take the time they need to think, organize, and plan.

One thing that’s tricky about answering a letter like yours is that I can’t know if the problem is all on your workplace’s side because they’re giving you a wildly unreasonable workload, or whether it’s actually reasonable for them to expect you to move through your work at a faster pace. Based on what you’ve described about how your boss manages, though, it’s hard to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Ideally, you should be able to tell your boss that, if you’re spending most of your time in a customer-facing area away from your desk, you need to adjust your workload in other areas to make room for that. And ideally your boss would recognize the inherent logic in this request and either help you identify what can move off your plate, or if your projects can’t change, move you away from that customer-facing area so you have time to do the rest of your work. Or, if she truly has grounds to believe you should be able to do it all, she should explicitly explain why she thinks that. For example, maybe she’s seen others juggle all that work easily — and maybe if you delved into why, you’d find they took shortcuts you didn’t realize were okay to take, or that you’re aiming for more perfection in the work than you need to. Or maybe it’s because those people had significantly more experience than you and thus could churn through work faster — in which case it would help to bring that to the surface and talk about what to do about it.

But since that’s not how the conversation went — since you were just told to find a way to get it all done, and that was it — you probably have a boss problem on your hands. And that’s backed up by some of the other details you included about your boss, like her aversion to deadlines (or at least her aversion to telling you about deadlines; she clearly still has them in her head) and her stealth method of assigning work without telling the person she’s assigned it to. You’re describing a boss who doesn’t know how to delegate or oversee work, and so while it’s possible that your own work habits are part of the problem, it’s pretty damn likely that a good-size chunk of the problem is coming from her.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to address the pieces of this that you might have some control over. For example, you could try talking to people who do similar work about how they manage their time and organize their projects; there might be insights there that help you. And I’d try a week-long experiment where you spend 15 minutes at the start and end of every day planning and prioritizing your work for the week to see if that makes things more manageable. If those things pay off, they’ll make your current job easier and they’ll be good habits to take with you to your next job. But this job will always be hard with a boss like the one you have, no matter how much you strengthen your own work habits. You should still work to do that — because it’s an inherently good thing to do, especially early in your career — but you shouldn’t blame yourself for what sound like pretty serious boss deficiencies.

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‘Is My Workload Insane, or Am I Bad at My Job?’