is my workload too high or am I bad at my job?

A reader writes:

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 what all I’m supposed to do, let alone *do* it all. In addition to everything I already had been 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 has not 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 me 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 non-stop 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.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 128 comments… read them below }

  1. JokeyJules*

    I had a manager like this, constantly left me feeling frazzled and and behind until I realized it was that they had been pulling 14 hour days 6 days a week to get it all done while I was not allowed to work more than 35 hours a week. It was a real eye-opener for me about the expectations an absent-minded manager might have.

    Try to look at your workload objectively, rather than wondering if this is all because of your ability level.

    1. Green Goose*

      When I read the OP it also seemed like this was a manager communication issue instead of an ability issue, given that you have been there for more than a year and you were able to cope before. The OP came across like your manager is giving you more and more work, and when you bring it up to her she does not decrease your workload. I had a manager like this before, and I actually used the expression “I feel like I’m drowning” because he would not make it clear how in depth projects were when he asked me to do something. He was not a clear communicator and it left me feeling frazzled and stressed as well.

      After that manager left, my workload increased but I actually felt less stressed because my new manager was a much better communicator and I was able to plan ahead and organize my work instead of always having “high priority” projects dumped on me at the last minute.

      1. OP*

        Yup, I totally get this. She was recently out for an extended period of time and although I was much busier while covering for her, the experience removed communication barriers that I didn’t even realize were there. Much less stressful overall.

        1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

          My suggestion is to compensate for her when she is there. She gives you an assignment, send an email detailing your understanding of it and your expected timeline.
          Not even as a CYA, but as clarification for you.
          Add it to your schedule where you see it fitting, and if she comes back with “I need this earlier.” (Which she won’t she will come to you whenever and say she needs it now.) This is when you push back. “To do that, I will have to move X and Y.”
          And do this. Make her have a conversation about assignments. Don’t just accept assignments as they are thrown at you – Like Tetris, and Space Invaders – speak up and be specific.
          But this is from my experience with a boss who doesn’t suck.

    2. Engineer Girl*

      OP I see several things going on:
      • Additional work tasks with no relief on other tasks. The best way to handle this is to subtract your time doing customer support from regular work time. If you are working customer support 25 hours per 40 hour week then you only have 15 hours left for your main tasks. Last year you had 40 hours for tasks, this year 15. Talk to your manager using these number and ask her if she expects you to work 3x faster than last year. Ask her how to fit 40 hours of tasking into 15.
      • No deadlines – then you establish them, via a written communication (email). You email boss and tell her that you are establishing a deadline of (date). State that you are going ahead with that deadline unless you hear otherwise. If she changes the date earlier then ask her which task to drop to a lower priority. If she refuses remind her of your work hours available. Confirm all new dates and tasks via email. A boss this disorganized will need paper that this was previously agreed. When she chastises you for “missing” a date then act confused and politely reference the enclosed email where you agreed to the date.
      • At the end of the week we nd a weekly status report with in-work tasks and estimated completion dates. Yes, more paper trail that you notified her of task completion.
      • In the same report include things to be accomplished next week. This is your planning document but also gives notice to flake boss.
      • It is reasonable for boss to communicate to you how much work they expect you to get done for someone in your salary grade. “Just get it all done” is an unreasonable response unless they tell you how they think you’re supposed to do it.
      • Unreasonable bossed will grossly underestimate the time it takes to do a project. They’ll expect you to write a 40 hour white paper in 7 hours, etc. When doing task estimations always break it into smaller tasks and then add up the hours for the total task. You know you work for a loon if they expect you to do a 15 hour test in 3 hours.

      1. Natalie*

        Yes, these are all really good suggestions for maintaining your sanity while you find that next job.

      2. Antilles*

        On that last point, breaking it up into tasks can actually really *really* help your argument. When Boss isn’t doing the work personally, it’s easy to say “oh, it’s just a report, 4 hours seems fine” because she isn’t actually thinking through all that it takes.
        But when you break it down task by task and describe how long each of THOSE tasks takes, suddenly it’s much harder to argue because each individual task seems reasonable*. You aren’t asking for a Big Massive 40 hours to write that white paper, you’re asking for 4 hours for internet research (fair!), 4 hours to prepare 11 figures, 8 hours to write 20 pages of text (reasonable), 3 hours to address comments, and so on.
        *Or, if not, she has to provide reasons why your estimate is too long, which can itself provide some valuable information as to whether you’re missing a key shortcut or being too precise or whatever else.

    3. MsMaryMary*

      I think it might be helpful to get a sense of how many hours your boss thinks is reasonable for you to work. At OldJob, 60+ hour weeks were the norm. It wasn’t unusual to, say, spend 6 hours in meetings before being able to get to your computer and actually do work. OP, if your boss is expecting (fairly or not)you to spend 7 hours with customers maybe she expects you to spend the next 5 hours getting the rest of your work done.

      At the same time, if you are only supposed to be working an 8 hour day you may need to remind her of that. At OldJob, one of our roles moved to an exempt, 40 hour per week, no overtime allowed position. They hired additional people into the role, but it took a lot of effort from the rest of us to adjust expectations while a) people were being hired and trained, and b) w worked through a process for last minute problems and requests.

  2. Akcipitrokulo*

    The fact you were coping last year suggests something has changed. Job searching is certainly a good idea, and I hope the tips to find ways to reduce the stress work… but I suspect you will thrive in your next job.

    1. Akcipitrokulo*

      Also if you’re new and your organisational skills aren’t great yet… that’s something you can learn. Possibly asking for suggestions or help from boss may help, but from what you’ve said I would be surprised.

      1. Amber T*

        This too. I find it’s really helpful to take five minutes in the morning (and maybe five minutes again in the afternoon after lunch if need be) to sit down and write a list of everything I need to get done, and color code the priority level. Even on the days where I have a million and one things to do and can’t possibly take a break, I force myself to make the list and update it as need be, because those 5-10 minutes help reduce the “what the heck am I supposed to do now?” time.

        That being said, it definitely sounds like a boss problem, and your “lack” of organizational skill is really just a result of your boss’s poor communication style. I bet if you find a job with a manageable amount of work, your ability to organize will shine through.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the thing that changed is this: “In addition to everything I already had been 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 has not been reduced to accommodate this.”

      1. Anonymous Educator*

        Answering the phone is a big time suck. If you want me to file, make photocopies, create a report, clean up data, even do data entry, I can do all that at super efficiency. There is no such thing as a super-efficient phone call unless you just hurry people off the phone, which is bad customer service (now, I’m not saying you can’t politely limit a call to 5 minutes instead of 45 minutes—just that you can’t say “Okay, it’s been 45 seconds; hanging up now.”).

        The only times I felt my jobs were overwhelmingly too busy were when I was a classroom teacher (you can be efficent with grading, but no matter how well or badly you teach, you’re in that classroom for the entirety of the block or period) and when I was receptionist (constantly interrupted with phone calls and on the phone).

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          Not to mention that when you’re interrupted by a phone call, you can’t usually dive right back in to what you were doing. It takes a minute to figure out where you were and what comes next.

          1. AnonEMoose*

            So much this. I don’t take too many phone calls, but do fairly often have coworkers stopping by my desk to ask questions and such. And after each one, it takes at least a couple of minutes to figure out where I was with my previous task, and what’s next. Difficult when I’m dealing with several sources of information at once. Some interruptions are inevitable, but I so much prefer it when people email me questions so I can answer when I have a minute!

        2. aebhel*

          Yeah, and I find that people who don’t actually do front-desk work regularly themselves vastly underestimate both how much of a time-suck it is in and of itself, and how hard it is to concentrate on any involved task when you’re being interrupted every couple of minutes. And when it’s busy on a front desk, the work is constant; you can’t just put off the customer who’s right in front of you because you have another task that needs doing, so it’s really not realistic to expect people to get all (or, depending on how busy the place is, any) of the rest of their work done while they’re working up front.

          1. Ama*

            I was actually coming here to comment that from the mention of “student workers” it sounds like this may be an academia job. I spent nine years as an academic administrator and I left primarily because the amount of time it took to handle the “15%” reception duties in my job description (which was really closer to 40%) and the amount of time it took to manage the student workers in our department were never adequately accounted for by my bosses. In their minds these were “easy” duties that took a few minutes here and there, they didn’t seem to ever be around the mornings when the phone rang non-stop for two hours or when I had to spend an hour helping a student sort out a payroll system issue or walking them through how to do the “easy” task to match the bosses’ preferences.

            When I left, I had finally managed to convince my direct boss to update the job description to 30% reception duties (even though that still wasn’t correct, in my opinion) — only to get pushback from her bosses that that “couldn’t possibly be accurate.” They ended up hiring 2 FT administrators and 1 PT receptionist to replace all of the things I had been doing.

        3. Zahra*

          Former call center worker here: there are ways to make a call shorter, but there’s a limit to that.

          Making sure you understand the problem (repeat what you understood to make sure you’re on the same wavelength), cutting down on chitchat (that was my worst time suck on calls when I started), taking notes during the call to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything, going straight to the point, etc.

      2. Alton*

        I think that was likely a big change (possibly more than the OP even consciously realizes). Not only can visitors and phone calls take up time, but interruptions can break your concentration a lot, even if they aren’t long interruptions.

      3. MCM*

        Why cannot they not use the student workers to answer the phones and handle some of the walk in traffic? Students should be able to look up some of the information on your website, transfer calls, answer some of the basic questions. It can be screened before being passed to you or someone else within the department. As long as you do not get a student that transfers everything to you instead of figuring out the basic answers on their own. You can give them a list of staff and what their area of responsibilities are.

        1. tigerlily*

          I don’t know about you, but I actually can’t just decide someone else should handle part of my job for me. Presumably, the student workers she’s helping aren’t there to answer the phone or help with other customer service tasks. And as someone who’s dealing with volunteers answering the phones right now due to transitions between admin assistants – someone who’s not that super familiar with the organization is not often that helpful answering phones. They just don’t know enough to be able to answer questions well or even know who the best person to transfer calls to is.

      4. AnotherAlison*

        Although it does sound like the OP’s job structure changed in year 2, I think it would be pretty common to be assigned a lighter workload in your first year. I’ve PM’d 10+ projects with very similar scope. My mentor really baby-stepped me through the first one, I spent more hours doing it, and I worked on that project by itself. Now I can do the same project with no support from anyone above me, with fewer hours spent, and 3-4 other projects on my plate. I think there are situations where someone was fine during their training period, but will find they are not able to keep up with the real workload once it is unleashed on them.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Although it does sound like the OP’s job structure changed in year 2, I think it would be pretty common to be assigned a lighter workload in your first year.

          How common may vary based on industry and position. I don’t doubt your experience, but I’ve never had a job that’s eased me into it the first year (I’ve worked mainly in secondary education).

        2. Natalie*

          Being assigned a heavier work load as you gain more experience is totally common, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. For one thing, in my experience a person gets assigned more projects *as it becomes clear* that they have the capacity to take on more. Assuming that is managed well, the person shouldn’t become crazily overwhelmed the way this LW has been.

          Also, I wouldn’t consider “cover the customer area” to be part of more and different projects. It’s a totally different job. I wouldn’t expect an individual contributor to just start running payroll or cleaning the office as they gained more experience, either.

          1. AnotherAlison*

            I agree with you. I just wanted to make the point that keeping up the first year and not keeping up the second year did not necessarily indicate weird new duties and bad management, as it did in the OP’s case. A person can simply graduate from JobRole Trainee (even if unofficial and not communicated) to JobRole.

    3. nonymous*

      I wonder if OP needs to be more blunt? Some people are just really bad at thinking through the details. So OP might really need to ask for specific guidance such as: “Am I expected to finish tasks ABC from Project X while at Customer Service Desk?” and follow up with “There were N customer walk ups, M phone calls and Z student requests. Out of my 6 hours at customer service, 5.5 hours was actively engaged in support duties and the remaining 0.5hrs is not enough to finish tasks ABC. What should I de-prioritize?”

      It may be that Boss is under the false assumption that the customer service requests are fewer or less hands on (there are some questions that I can answer without disrupting my primary focus, but that’s assuming a really low standard of customer service). With some data, maybe you can push back – perhaps you can seek to delegate tasks to the student workers or practice some habits to encourage their self-sufficiency (iirc AAM has some tips about this issue).

  3. Specialk9*

    Oh, hon, that’s an awful no-win situation. I agree with Alison – it could theoretically be you, except that with that behavior from your manager, it’s not you. But you can still determine to focus on time management in your next job. Good thing you’re job hunting, your boss is a nightmare!

  4. C Average*

    Alison’s answer is a good start, but I would throw in another question: are you a person who needs to have “done” within reach?

    In my last corporate job (three years ago), “done” wasn’t a recognized concept. No one was ever done. Everyone had a backlog of less urgent stuff they were going to get to someday, when all the bigger fires were put out, but someday never came. Everyone understood this and worked within this framework, with varying levels of success and satisfaction.

    When I returned to the workforce (after taking some time away to deal with family stuff), I vowed that I would find a job where I knew what “done “ looked like and where it was achievable with reasonable effort. I knew this would limit my options and probably cost me financially. I am okay with that.

    I work retail, and freelance on the side. Every day and every project, I know what “done” looks like and I know how to get there. I sleep better at night and my free time is uncontaminated by guilt and anxiety. It’s worth every penny I’m giving up.

    If you are by nature a person who needs a similar workflow, seek out occupations and workplaces where “done” is a recognizable and attainable concept.

    1. OP*

      Oh my god, this is brilliant advice. I absolutely am a person who wants to feel like “done” is attainable.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Ah! So, in a lot of fields, this may never be a thing you find in your job. In a lot of professional jobs — definitely not all of them, but in an awful lot — there is always a list of lower-priority things for “someday.” So there’s never a day when you cross a final item off your to-do list and have literally nothing else you could be tackling. That’s why getting aligned with your manager on priorities and timelines, and whether something is important or a “someday if there’s time” kind of thing is really crucial, as is knowing what kind of productivity is “good” versus “great” versus “not so good.”

        1. Astor*

          For me, it’s not about having an empty to-do list, it’s about being able to actually cross all my items off the to-do list. So there is always a list of lower-priority things for “someday”, but that someday comes even while I have more lower-priority things for the next someday.

          1. copy run start*

            Yes, if my to-do list starts getting thin I get anxious that I’m going to run out of work and that, to me, is even worse than being snowed in. I do like to see progress being made though.

      2. Kyrielle*

        What Alison said, but I also find that *deoberately* dividing my projects into a current working list and a low-priority backlog helps. “Done” is hitting the end of the must-do’s and being able to dip into the “somedays” even if briefly.

      3. Jake*

        I struggle very hard with that. Eventually I get to the point where I do all I can in a reasonable week (50 to 55 hours a week in my position and industry) and let the rest roll off muy back. Its tough to do that, and it requires confidence that you’re good at your job.

      4. Zahra*

        I use ToDoist for that: you can assign a due date to tasks, but you don’t *have* to. If you only look at your “today” list, there’s a way to see it all crossed-off and pretty. Or you can report a task to tomorrow or next week, etc.

        Plus, I block my time in my calendar to work on some stuff. Sometimes I’m free, so people can book other appointments in there. But for high priority assignments or “must not be interrupted” stuff, I totally go for “Busy” or even “exile” myself to a different floor, a closed office (we have a few available due to past reorgs) or a meeting room. Basically, I make sure I’m as hard as possible to find. Sometimes, I even close Outlook (after sending a message to the team or putting an “OOO” message for the day).

      5. Cucumberzucchini*

        For my staff I like them to have a backlog of projects because there are slow days or days when I’m not in the office and they have something to do. A lot of the projects will take a year to complete because they only work on them sporadically but this works perfectly for my business’s needs. Otherwise my staff would be sitting around some days waiting for me to come back from a meeting etc… the difference is they know this work is not something I expect them to kill themselves to do during busy times.

    2. Blue Anne*

      C Average, thank you for this post. You put your finger on a concept I’ve been trying to pin down for a long time. “Done” being within reach is something I really want from my work, and that’s why I’ve been looking at a lot of jobs I’m overqualified for. This helps me explain why I actually really do want them. Thank you.

    3. SheLooksFamiliar*

      This is an excellent question, C, and I wonder how many people know the answer to this question for their line of work. I didn’t get the feeling the LW is uncertain of this, but it’s well worth considering.

      I’m in corporate staffing, have been for 30 years. My colleagues and I have often said we’re rarely ‘done’ with our work. Oh, sure, jobs get filled, so technically they are ‘done’, but the process is ongoing. We fill specific jobs, but we always have openings. We’re never really ‘done.’, and that can be difficult for some of my recruiters. And I get it: I manage a team, and also staffing operations – systems, tools, platforms, processes, resources. I have deliverables for key projects, and very tight deadlines. Oddly, this rigid structure makes other parts of my job easier to manage.

    4. Just employed here*

      I used to have a job where “done” did kind of exist, but it might be many months away, or it might even never materialize (fundraising). And sometimes, “done” was something that couldn’t really be measured (awareness of issues, attitudes towards our small non-profit organization, …).

      Now I still have some “endless” projects (improve stuff), but my team also has an absolute, written-into-law responsibility to get certain things done every single working day. It’s quite satisfying to leave work and have done those things every day! But if I didn’t have those loftier, longer-term projects as well, I’d go crazy. So a bit of both is the trick for me.

    5. ThatGirl*

      I feel this. I like to know what “done” is, and have projects feel finish-able, even if it’s in sections. I’m currently in a job where we’re going to be backlogged until January. And then things will slow down a lot, but in the meantime I have to adjust my own thinking to “what can I reasonably get done in 8-8.5 hours?”.

    6. MsMaryMary*

      There’s also a conflict in perfect versus done. Of course, you need to deliver quality work. But there are not enough hours in the day to make sure your work is the ideal perfect product.

      One of the consultants in my office has a huge problem with this. He’ll spend hours fiddling with the layout of a powerpoint or wordsmithing an email. Every time he works on a report he ends up reinventing at least a quarter of it instead of tailoring the existing template. Nothing is ever good enough to be considered finished until he crashes into a deadline and has to stop working. Then he literally runs out the door for meetings with materials warm from the printer, and there are errors in his work because changes were being made down to the last second and no one could proofread or review. It drives everyone crazy, especially more junior people who are stressed out having to re-do work and being told it’s never good enough.

      Done is better than perfect because it’s never going to be perfect. Do good work, finish that work, and move on.

      1. Sunshine on a cloudy day*

        YEESSSS!!! So much this! It’s also a matter of – is it worth the time it takes to get to 100% versus 99.5%. If it takes you 4 hours to get to 99.5%, but then would take another 4 hrs to get to 100% – is that really an effective use of time?

        For certain things it might be, but often it is not – and knowing how to tell the difference is so important.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          I wish I could remember where I read it recently, but: is our business about hearts in coolers? If so, everything needs to be right all the time. But most business are much less urgent than that, and “good enough” really can be perfectly acceptable.

          (And my version of “done” is: I turned in the document. Very satisfying.)

          1. MsMaryMary*

            I first heard the “hearts in coolers” phrase here.

            But that’s what’s deceptive about perfect versus done. Even a heart surgeon needs to decide at some point that she’s done the best she could and finish the surgery. She can’t keep the patient in the OR for hours and hours second guessing herself and triple checking every suture.* Life and death jobs still require the judgement to know when it’s time to finish one task and move on to another.

            * I am not a doctor. I’ve just watched a lot of medical TV shows.

      2. Jaybeetee*

        I have a colleague like this too, though we now work in separate units. But people used to scratch their heads that he was always the only guy on our team consistently pulling over-time – people would commiserate about how over-worked he was, but our team all had the same tasks, and the rest of us were getting them done within work hours. It was the kind of thing you describe – labouring over emails and nitpicking reports down to the word, spending three times longer than he needed to on any given task and endlessly redoing and redrafting things, and thus working hours later than the rest of us each day.

        At one point he was supposed to be mentoring me on a task that he had experience with and I didn’t, and I remember thinking I must have been really bad – it was to do with drafting correspondence, and he would send things back to me for endless edits and rewrites before I could finally forward my drafts to the manager (I’m usually a pretty strong writer, so I was confused and disheartened to be so “bad” at this). After he was moved, and he wasn’t mentoring me anymore, it turns out the stuff I wrote was just fine, or the manager would send things back for a single minor edit – it was just not the way *he* wrote things.

        1. Salamander*

          Ahhh, I worked for a couple of guys like this over my career. They made my existence absolutely miserable. I quit both of those jobs, and they have driven off every other person who worked under them in less than six months. These guys are annoying all on their own, but they should never be given authority over other people. Never ever.

    7. Kay*

      Ahhhhhhh, this is superb. Thank you.

      I would also add a variation to it: a project can be done, but never truly closed. I just wrapped up a huge multi-year research project. It had clearly defined end goals. We achieved them. This month we sent off the last constituent update. The exhibit is coming down next month. BUT. People are going to come out of the woodwork for the next 20 years asking about it, wanting to add more to it, asking me to speak about it. So I can’t ever truly turn the page to a new chapter. That gets to me sometimes. So while on the one level I am totally okay with never being done – boy, am I ever; I ride horses in my spare time – but the never being able to let go of things that are by anyone’s objective standards done…that’s hard for me. But it’s a feature of doing the work that I love, so I’m working on coping with it.

    8. Ramona Flowers*

      This is genius.

      I have a job where some things are discrete projects that can be done and dusted, some are things where there’s always going to be more of the thing to do and I also have a long list of things for someday when I have time (which I do occasionally manage to knock things off of). Plus I have to keep certain kinds of knowledge up to date which is never finished.

      I don’t need ‘done’ to be in reach. I just need some quick wins here and there.

    9. Competent Commenter*

      On the issue of “done,” I too really like to be done with things and have that sense of accomplishment. But I’m also well aware that as a communications professional, the work is never “done.” And being in a situation that’s similar to the OP’s, I’ve had conversations about this with some of the higher-ups. “Well, this kind of work is never done,” they say, with this kind of patronizing smile. Yeah, I know that. But there’s a difference between knowing that there will always be another social media post on the horizon versus having an endless stack of work that can never be completed on time. Especially in a communications role, so much is time-sensitive. So when people ask me to get a speech written in time for an event, you have to make that. If you get items to put out on social media, if you don’t post them at least in a few days, they expire. If you need materials for an annual campaign and this is the third year you won’t have them updated, it’s fricking depressive and anxiety-making. Just sayin’.

      I just want to be able to be on top of my deadlines. I want to stop having major anxiety about my inbox and the rapidly aging and emergency items in it. I want to be able to meet people’s eyes in the hallway, knowing I’m basically on target to get their assignments done in a reasonable timeframe! That’s my idea of “done,” thank you very much!

      Not being huffy with anyone here, just burned out at work. Guess I’m “done.” :)

    10. hbc*

      Very well put. I think that’s exactly why some of OP’s colleagues work at a leisurely pace–once you accept that you can’t do everything even if you worked 160 hours a week, you get much more relaxed. You can still recognize when you need to race around or put in the extra hours, but it’s not every day, or every week.

      You definitely have to be the type who takes pleasure in the height of your outbox and not the emptiness of your inbox to keep your cool at some jobs. And maybe have a hobby or two where things are achievable and concrete to keep you grounded–you can read that book this month, or get your red belt, or complete that cross-stitch.

    11. NW Mossy*

      When I was first hired into management, my new boss shared with me that managing is a job without “done” and it was the hardest thing she herself faced when making the same transition. Having that bit of understanding coming into management from an individual contributor role was incredibly helpful in easing my own transition and keeping a healthy perspective on what achievements look like once you’re out of the day-to-day doing of tasks.

    12. Stelmsfornow*

      This is why I went from grant writing/non-profit work (always working six months out on events, grants, etc. and never, ever being “done” to finally (at 39 years old six years ago) finding my niche as an Executive Assistant. I get to cross soooo many things off my “to do” list every day. I schedule a lot of meetings, pull reports, send out agendas, etc. in additional to higher lever tasks. Done, done and done. I leave my office every day with a sense of accomplishing something and for the most part when I lave at the end of the day, I get to leave it all at the office.

    13. Not That Jane*

      This idea of being “done” is definitely NOT a thing that I get to experience very often in teaching. So this is a hugely important distinction to make. Thanks for the insight!

    14. Not That Jane*

      I would add, now that I think more about it, that I break down my To Do list in several different ways. There is always an immediate list, organized by day of the week and by “area” of my job (administrative, teaching, grading, leadership). Those tasks, I don’t let myself go home without somehow addressing the ones for that day (which can include deciding to put them off for tomorrow – sparingly!).

      Then there are the lower-priority things that still probably need to be done in the medium term. I move those onto the daily list as I can, and then treat them like the daily tasks.

      Finally, there are large curriculum design tasks / big ideas about classroom management / new teaching tools I want to try, etc. Those get put on a list that I address over the summer, if at all.

  5. OP*

    Thank you so much for posting my letter! It is so validating to hear that I am not delusional for having a hard time with my boss’s management style (what I shared with you in this letter is just the tip of the iceberg—I don’t like to whine). I am actually the high performer on my team and am often praised, even by her, for my speed and ability to handle a high workload…I think that may be how it kept getting higher and higher…

    In the weeks since writing you I actually did start establishing a habit of spending a few minutes each day planning out my work or putting alerts into my calendar, and even when I don’t get to much of what was planned, it is still so helpful for me to see it all laid out in an organized way. I’ve also made more of an effort to force my boss’s hand on deadlines and assignments. She often gets annoyed when I ask for clarification or specificity, but I have stopped letting that discourage me from asking for clear instructions and feedback, and concrete deadlines. It has all been really helpful and I’m proud of how much I’ve been able to accomplish that I may have forgotten before.

    I have gone on quite an emotional/mental journey since submitting this and it’s interesting to see how I depicted the situation in my letter. I felt a lot more powerless just a few weeks ago. Positions in my desired field are scarce at the moment and I’ve gone from feeling totally hopeless about my job search to trying to learn how to live with the situation I’m in. It has been a productive journey and your advice just helps me even more. Thank you!

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Being good at your job is a double edged sword. I could have easily written your first paragraph a few years ago at ToxicJob. Because I was efficient and quick, I got more and more added to my workload while my teammates kept the same. And then when I couldn’t keep up and things fell through the cracks, I got fired (they had to replace me with two people).

      Good for you on figuring out ways to make the situation work! Good luck on your job search.

        1. SheLooksFamiliar*

          That’s one of the reasons why my ex is my ex: ‘You always manage things so well, why do I need to get involved?’

          He said this during very hectic holiday prep, knowing Christmas makes me blue, but he’d invited his large extended family to our house for a traditional Christmas dinner, comparing it to a regular weekend dinner party, and oh, yes, his nieces and nephews expected lots of decorations and gifts, and he hated cooking, cleaning, and shopping…yeah, there’s a reason he’s my ex.

          1. Pineapple Incident*

            Oof, my boyfriend does this to an extent. He’s gotten a lot better, but we’ve had to have a lot of conversations that start with me saying “you know, you rely on me to plan a lot of things, and you often ask me questions that you should have the answers to… that needs to change and you need to know this ish.” I’m sorry you had to go through that, especially the holiday thing, what a jerk your ex is!

    2. Hj*

      Strengths based self assessment is a tool I learned in my current workplace and use a lot. I detach from panic and the perfectionism and ask myself:
      What did I do well?
      What will I do differently next time?

      It helped me stop trying to do everything perfectly and find where today’s good enough was. It also allowed me to reflect on where I could improve and how. I stopped getting sucked into that anxiety spiral.

    3. Amy*

      I had this happen in my last job, where I was getting things done and getting a reputation as a high performer so I kept being given more and more stuff to do. It started out great when I actually had room to take on more, then moved to being fine when I hit a balance where I was doing the important things and saving the less-important ones for later…and then moved to being really stressful when it reached a point where I didn’t have time for all of the important things, either. I don’t mind putting off low priority things, but I reached a point where I felt like I was in crisis mode all the time, and there were always a dozen high-priority-but-not-quite-crisis things hanging over my head; I knew I wouldn’t get to them, and I also knew that there would be more crises tomorrow if they weren’t handled today, which is an awful combination to live with on a day-to-day basis. I tried talking to my manager about it, but the whole team was in the same boat, so beyond assuring me that I was prioritizing correctly and telling me to just do my best, there wasn’t much she could do. (This particular company didn’t give middle management much actual power, so there were real limits to what she could do to fix things too.) It was too stressful, even though I was prioritizing ‘correctly’, so I left.

    4. Specialk9*

      I’m a verbal processor. I often don’t know exactly what I’m feeling, just these vague animalistic grunts of “feel bad in belly!” until I talk through them. In the talking process, I usually figure out the problem, and then can problem solve solutions. It can be hard to know how to help a verbal processor, so I’ve had to get explicit by defining help. My spouse has learned that when I ask for help with a problem, I mostly need listening and some follow-up questions, as opposed to actual advice. (Except for when I specifically ask for it.)

      For verbal processing, the problem definition can be the hard part. Once we know the problem we can take it from there.

      1. JulieBulie*

        Interesting! I’m a “textual” processor, I guess, because I start by writing an email or a reply comment or something… rephrasing… realizing that I’m not really sure what I want to ask… checking some details… cutting and pasting things around… and often, suddenly everything becomes clear.

        1. Teapot Librarian*

          So much this. This is most of why I hate talking on the phone. That said, sometimes I’ll start writing an email and in the process of clarifying what I need, I’ll realize that it’s a phone call issue. Or I’ll realize that there are possible solutions to my problem that I haven’t tried yet and I don’t need to be asking someone a question after all.

      1. OP*

        I’ve learned from watching others (at all levels!) do it that it’s not a pretty sight. Suffice to say she has an HR file a mile long.

        Now if I approached it really tactfully, she might help me reprioritize my tasks. But later it would be framed as a failing on my part for even having to ask.

        1. JessaB*

          I do not get why someone with an HR file a mile long is still working there, I mean someone should be either managing them to cease and desist or managing them OUT.

        2. Nico m*


          Your boss is 100% the problem

          Keep looking for a new job while also cultivate allies against her.

    5. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

      It sounds like you have this under control now, but in case it’s helpful:

      When I plan my week (on Friday afternoons), I list out everything that I know needs to be worked on (even those things that I know what I won’t get to), then block time on my calendar for those items that are most important.

      It helps me make choices about what to focus on as my calendar gets overfull. It could also be a tool for helping your boss understand your workload and how you’re deploying your time. She may disagree with what your prioritizing, or be surprised at how long a particular project is taking you (either because she’s being unrealistic about the time needed, or because you’re spending more time than the project should be taking, etc.).

    6. Thlayli*

      My own situation might help you a little, or it might not but here goes: my boss is a bit like yours. He has also done things like mention that someone would be good at something or that it would be done by a particular department and then express surprise when it isn’t done a week later – because he never actually assigned it to anyone. Many of my team members complain constantly about how much they have to do and how they don’t have enough time. Which is true. But I don’t have that problem (touch wood). When my workload gets unmanageable I make a to-do list, prioritise it in order of what I think is most important, estimate times for each (or if it’s a long thing say “I’ll spend 2 days a week on this for the foreseeable future), then I book in an appointment with my boss, email him the list before and hen ask if he agrees. Sometimes he’ll tell me to move things up or down the priority and sometimes he’ll take something off or add something on, or he’ll tell me he expects something to take more or less time. This works really well for me and I keep advising my coworkers to do the same, but they just keep insisting that boss knows they are overworked and that there’s nothing they can say or do about it.
      I had another coworker who did the same thing as me (slight variations but essentially the same) and he agreed with me that boss is pretty reasonable when you explain it to him.
      Ive just come to accept my boss just isn’t very good in some ways – so I can either sit around and moan about it or I can manage myself, tell him the plan and get his approval.
      In your case this might look like:
      1 customer facing: 6 hours a day this leaves 10 hours a week for everything else
      2 task A: 2 hours every Monday
      3 task b: spend all spare time until it’s done, estimate 2 weeks (16 hours)
      Etc etc
      It can be very hard when you are starting out to estimate realistic times so it’s a good idea to adjust expectations weekly or fortnightly e.g. “Task b has taken much longer than expected, so this will take another week”, “task c was quicker than I thought so I’ve moved on to task D. As time goes by you will get a better idea of how long things will take.
      Hope this is some help

      1. JessaB*

        This is a great idea, however, before that happens I still agree with those above that suggest that a sit down has to happen where the “You do realise that I’m doing x hours a week of customer facing work where I cannot do x, y and z.” I have a feeling that the boss is not understanding either how much time is spent on this task or that the OP cannot simultaneously do other work during that time.

  6. AnonAcademic*

    I felt this way at my 2nd year at my current job. Essentially my “reward” for being a high performer Year 1 was for me to have tasks piled on me in Year 2, also with no clear deadlines, no help, constant fires to put out, and computer systems that were constantly crashing and slowing me down. Couple this with a boss who has not been “in the trenches” doing my type of work for almost a decade, and he was just constantly frustrated at how “behind” I was on “everything.” I eventually realized that he was the least reliable and objective judge of my productivity, because he himself was overworked, sleep deprived, and has no real idea of the time constraints of the tasks I need to do. I am also seeking a new position because he isn’t going to change.

  7. Anon for This*

    I think that there are two other things that can come into play here. I think there is an assumption that the first year or two of your job you are getting up to speed (depending on the nature of the position), and that you become more efficient and so can take on more work. The other thing is that I think that everyone works at a different pace. Some people work at a very rapid pace and simply can’t understand why others don’t function at the same pace. I know that I’ve been guilty of this, and I’ve had to take steps to make sure that my expectations of my reports are reasonable.

  8. Van Wilder*

    I practically could have written this letter. I’ve been trying to work on my project planning skills lately so I don’t end up drowning in the next deadline – but planning takes too long! I started a Gantt chart and made project teams and then oops – I’m behind already. I also feel the same way in my personal life since I got a house and a baby.

    I’ve been implementing GTD but I’m starting to suspect it doesn’t work for me because I might just have more tasks than I have time for. Curious about other people’s experiences.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      GTD might help you see that you do, actually, have more tasks than you have time for. And that’s when you see where you can cut out stuff that takes time but doesn’t actually need *your* judgement. The easiest way is to hire out some of your workload at home, if you can afford to do that. Order more stuff online instead of hitting the stores (I’m thinking drugstore-type stuff here). And especially if your baby is fairly new, use disposable plates and flatware for awhile. Use a laundry service for clothes. Have no shame in spending money to replace the time you don’t have.

      1. Jules the Third*


        Time really is money. Spend some money so that you get to focus on the fun stuff – most grocery stores have pick-up options, for $5 or so in my area, for example. My time is worth $5/hour, for sure.

        I do GTD with a spreadsheet, as I have some repeated tasks and some one-offs, and I *hate* re-writing stuff when I can just copy/paste. But I am welded to an electronic device, so I can have the sheet up all the time.

        1. Van Wilder*

          I use a paper notebook for GTD. I haven’t figured out the best way to handle repeated tasks and I think it’s one thing that’s not really addressed in the book.

    2. Jenny Next*

      GTD gave me a lot of helpful tips on keeping track of everything (I used a Word file, updated weekly, with all of my current tasks on it). But the two most helpful things were:

      1.) Telling me that the brain is not meant to keep track of things, and that it slows down execution to constantly have to juggle everything else in your memory. Everything that needs to be done or remembered should be on paper.

      2.) Reminding me that I also have to keep the big goals in mind, so that I can see how my task list helps me make progress toward the important things. When I realized that absolutely nothing on my task list furthered my career, or led to a raise or recognition, or gave me any feeling of personal pride, I retired that week, three years ahead of schedule — not a luxury that most people have, admittedly.

  9. Blue Anne*

    C Average, thank you for this post. You put your finger on a concept I’ve been trying to pin down for a long time. “Done” being within reach is something I really want from my work, and that’s why I’ve been looking at a lot of jobs I’m overqualified for. This helps me explain why I actually really do want them. Thank you.

      1. Emi.*

        Haha, I thought at first that you were grading Allison’s column as a “C Average,” but then going on about how great it was.

    1. Koko*

      Many years ago when I was leaving academia to pursue completely unrelated work in the nonprofit field, I would tell interviewers this:

      “I’ve learned that there are things I need in order to be satisfied in my job that academia can’t provide me. In academia, even the top experts in the field go through many rounds of revision on everything they produce until it’s acceptable. I need to be able to do things and have them be right the first time I do them, at least some of the time. I also need to be able to complete projects with some regularity to have a sense of accomplishment. In academia, projects span for years and can feel never-ending.”

      The third reason I left academia, but didn’t usually include in my interview comments, is that I need to be occasionally praised when I’ve done a good job. Nothing effusive or over the top, but just to be told, “Great work!” or “Thanks for turning this around so quickly,” and not have it be immediately followed by a list of things I need to improve.

  10. Koko*

    This happened to me a couple years into my job. It started in our usual busy season and then never let up. By the time we were 2 or 3 months into what should have been the slow season, I asked my boss for a meeting and told her: “I am at capacity. I cannot manage anything more than I have on my plate right now, and if anything unexpected pops up it’s going to cause a ripple effect of delays through my other projects.”

    She took my concerns to heart. In the short-term she helped me go through my list of projects and identify items that could be de-prioritized, re-assigned, or process-improved to take less time. In the long-term – it took about two more years from the date of this meeting – she got approval to add a position reporting me to take on some of my work. It felt like forever to get the additional headcount, and ended up being bundled into a revenue-neutral plan to end our contract with an expensive outside agency and re-invest the savings in several new positions to pick up the work previously done by the agency. I was glad I had spoken up to my boss when I did because she went to bat to make sure that a support position for me was part of the plan.

  11. Fake old Converse shoes*

    So, you went from on call fireman to fight two natural disasters at once (let’s say a summer forest fire and a earthquake), right? Keep job search and get out of there ASAP before you burnout.

  12. i'maskingamanager*

    I think a lot of managers do not realize how much time a person spends assisting customers when that is part of your role. They add it on to someone’s job and assume that it can just “fit around” other work you’re doing. They don’t factor in any additional time to do this very significant additional thing.

    I realize it puts another “thing to do” on your plate, but sometimes doing a time analysis (aka “job audit”) of how you spend your time and giving it to your manager is a way to document that
    A. you are working hard and
    B. you can’t do everything you are asked to do.

    1. Sandman*

      I completely agree with this. And in addition to the actual time spent working with customers, every interruption takes a couple minutes to recover from. I had a job like this once – my own tracking showed that I was “only” handling a customer maybe one hour out of three, but most of that hour came via phone call every 3-7 minutes. It’s hard to do anything at all in four-minute intervals.

    2. Natalie*

      Not just time, but there is a penalty to constantly switching your focus, especially when trying to work on something detailed, analytical, creative, etc. At one job in an open environment I used to block the way to my chair with a stool and a sign when I was doing work that needed focus, because otherwise I was interrupted continuously and it would take at least twice as long to get the work done.

  13. Kelsi*

    Yikes, does that bring back some memories.

    I once, after 2-3 years of NEVER being able to catch up, had a meeting with my boss about three major projects that had come onto my plate and all needed to be turned around that same week. I told her I would do my best but there was no way I could complete all three in a week, so I needed her to prioritize them.

    She refused. “They’re all important,” she said. “They all need to get done,” she said. I literally could not get her to give me any opinion on which order to do them in. She also would not approve me working any overtime to get them done.

    There were lots of other major, major problems with the workload and management at that job, but that story was pretty much the embodiment of how my concerns were handled throughout. (I’m still at the same agency but in a different department and the entire leadership has changed. Now my boss actually asks whether I am swamped, helps me prioritize when things are crazy, and offers solutions when we have an avalanche of unexpected stuff that puts me behind! Imagine!!)

    1. JanetM*

      I was once hired as a word processor for a small law firm. When I walked in, there was a stack of probably 30 dictation tapes and a stack of marked-up paper.

      I created a list of everything on my desk and took it to the attorneys. “I’m new,” I said, “and I don’t know what’s high priority or coming up next. Can you please highlight the top five things that need to be done first?”

      Between the two of them, they highlighted every item on a five-page list.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        I’m pretty sure I’ve told this story before, but at my very first professional job, I had a boss who was terrible at communicating deadlines and I was too inexperienced to know how to have the conversation.

        When I came in the morning, he’d give me a project and tell me that was my top priority for the day. I’d start working on it and then he’d stop by an hour later with something else and tell me it was my top priority. Repeat three or four more times throughout the day. I’d always set aside whatever I had been doing to work on the new top priority and then he’d be mad at the end of the day when the very first thing he gave me wasn’t done.

        Thankfully, I had a wonderful HR rep and I talked to her and the three of us had a conversation and the issue was resolved.

    2. mf*

      “I literally could not get her to give me any opinion on which order to do them in. She also would not approve me working any overtime to get them done.”

      This is the managerial equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and yelling LA LA LA I DON’T WANT TO HEAR ABOUT HOW YOU HAVE TOO MUCH WORK. Because if she had listened, she’d have to do something about it.

    3. Tabby Baltimore*

      Oh, please don’t leave us hanging like this! How did you end up handling these projects, and what was her reaction at the end of the week?

      1. Kelsi*

        Haha sorry, I didn’t include the conclusion because it’s pretty anticlimactic!

        I finished two of the three projects in time. Third project was finished the following week. Boss was not the person I’d been instructed to turn in the projects to, and apparently that person didn’t know what the deadlines were so they didn’t say anything….and whatever department the third project was for apparently never complained that their thing was late.

        Which probably means that, quite by accident, I prioritized correctly.

    4. Lalaroo*

      Wow, we must have worked for the same boss! Mine would then condescendingly say “It’s about time management,” or “It’s called multi-tasking” when I’d try to flag the fact that I couldn’t do two week-long projects in one week. Recently I had to say “There are 18 tasks. Each one takes me about 2 hours. You want me to get them to you tomorrow by noon. That will not be possible.” To her credit she gave me one more day. /s When I asked about overtime, she said “I’m not going to pay you overtime for work you should be doing during working hours.” But we’re a state agency – we don’t get paid overtime, we get comp time! It’s no skin off her nose! It’s nothing but lose-lose with this boss. :/

      1. Kelsi*

        Ugggghhhh yes! Ex boss was fond of saying “well, make it work.” (Not Tim Gunn style, more… handwaving I’m-bored-of-talking-about-this-now style) Sadly, I was young and sometimes believed that there WAS actually something wrong with me for not being able to do everything instantly the second she wanted it.

  14. anon24*

    I worked a blue collar job like this. It always felt like life or death urgency. I always had work left over at the end of the day and was always getting yelled at for it. Management told me that I should be able to handle double my current workload without having any problems getting it all done, and inferred that I was a horrible lazy millennial. I told them I couldn’t figure out how to be any faster or more efficient, and they could either show me how to do all this, hire another employee to help, or get off my back. I did get a few helpful tips that let me be a little more efficient, but mostly they got off my back and told me to do the best I could. It helped when the general manager decided to “show me” how easy my job was (on the slowest day we’d had in weeks), gave up after 3 hours, and then privately told my supervisor later that he was exhausted and had gone home that night and went straight to bed.

  15. Sarah*

    “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.”

    This is not normal. I feel for you, OP. I was in this situation for two years. I don’t have advice, as I ended up leaving and am much happier in my new position, but I’m sending you good thoughts. Hang in there.

  16. Helpful*

    Another helpful tool is tracking what you spend your time doing. If Customer service is ~25 hours and boss thinks it is ~5 hours, you’ll have a perception problem. Additionally, it could help you understand how long certain tasks take you, which can come into play when she is assigning you new work.

    1. Helpful*

      And take care of yourself outside of work so you can push through until you can find a new job or get what is right for you.

      1. TokenArchaeologist*

        These were the two comments I was going to make. 1) Start tracking how long specific tasks take. The info can help you organize your time, and also help you either make a case for a reduced work load, or figure out where you need to be more efficient. 2) Take care of yourself, and be on the lookout for symptoms of burnout.

  17. JarofBees*

    I had a similar boss who never provided deadlines, and found that sending a weekly project status update helped me keep up with everything I was doing, and also prevented any jumping the gun on “where’s Project X?” It gave her a chance to say X needs to be top priority, and also kept her in the loop about everything on my plate when she was assigning new work. It wouldn’t work with every boss, but it really helped me “manage up,” and got me more organized than a pile of emails and post-its could do.

  18. Ramona Flowers*

    Oh wow did this letter hit home for me. I had one job where the response to “I can’t get all this done unless someone freezes time” was “you’ll just have to make time”.

    Now I do have a job where I am very, very busy and there is always more to do, but I have time to think and plan because I have reached a point in my career where I felt able to tell my manager: I need time to do this, let me spend time looking out of the window and making lists and I’ll be super productive (which I am).

    I think you either need a supportive boss or time to plan. You have neither. I would advise you to look up the important/urgent matrix and use it to triage your tasks, but you kind of can’t while being forced to spend so much time in that customer area. I would advise to talk to your manager and peers about how long things should take, but that doesn’t sound possible.

    In my interview they asked: tell me about a time when you couldn’t get everything done – what did you do? The fact that existed as a possibility was a big green flag. Doubly so when, months later, I stumbled on the interview scoring info and they were looking for things like “check in about priorities with line manager” not “become a wizard”.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Equally as bad is “we’re not giving you more help, but you can work as much overtime as you need to”.

        Um… I don’t WANT to work 60 hours a week.

        1. Passing through*

          Or watch anyone who can help you go out the door Friday at 3 pm while you are working the weekend 7am to 10 at night, because you are exempt, and

          “We have already paid you for this. We are not going to pay others overtime when you have already been paid to do this.”

          At this point in my career I am likely underpaid for my skills. But after that, for better or worse, I’ll never work an exempt job again.

      2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I’ve never seen this before. It’s brilliant. That is the demented dream of so many bad managers.

    1. KAG*

      I was asked a similar question once during an interview – but it was phrased as “It’s Friday and the project is due on Monday, but you’ve only gotten the data now… what do you do?”

      I thought the question was targeted to see if I’d be considerate of my coworkers’ weekends, or what-not; it never occurred to me that *I* wasn’t expected to work over the weekend either! (Puzzled looks and follow-up questions were what clarified this for me). (And no, I didn’t accept the job; I guess the work environment was too healthy?)

  19. Bookworm*

    Glad you feel better, OP, and that you’ve found this helpful. Since you’ve previously found the workload manageable AND your workload has increased plus you’ve been taking steps (planning out at the beginning of the day and pushing back for more clarification) I’m fairly certain it’s not you. It’s your boss.

    I’ve been in similar situations and a good boss (and supportive co-workers) make all the difference. Once lasted only 3 weeks in a job because I was literally trained via one example without the nuance and breaking down this type of work and then thrown into the first project with basically “Here you go, figure it out.” The person who trained me (and theoretically would have supervised) was leaving for grad school and I guess it was a sort of a CYA to the firm. After I left it was confirmed to me that this was not how training should have gone but I was miserable and knew there was no point.

    And while I’ve experienced similar situations elsewhere I’ve been lucky enough to have managers who knew/had experienced my sense of overwhelm and were willing to work with me, give me suggestions, go over whatever concept that wasn’t quite sticking, asking specifically if there was anything they could do or tool/data they could provide (or were open to suggestions on how I/the team could adjust) to help me out. If your manager’s response has been to simply tell you it needs to be done and apparently resents that you push back even a little bit then it’s not you and sounds like you’ve outgrown the job/organization.

  20. knitcrazybooknut*

    I’d like to recommend as a time tracking tool. I can’t remember where I found it, but it’s easy and even the free version allows you to download the data. I have my whole team using it because my life is your life, OP. What a frustrating mess. But it helps to be able to show how you are spending your time.

  21. Jaybeetee*

    My bf has been in a similar job for about 6 months now, and it stresses the hell out of him. Basically, he was hired to do a job a whole team should have been working on, but someone higher up was oblivious to the real workload. He was also given minimal training – somewhere around day 2 or 3, he asked his supervisor to repeat an instruction, and she snapped at him asking if she’d stuttered. He’s had a non-stop mountain of work this whole time. Even when he’s worked weekends and overtime, he hasn’t been able to catch up. One problem is that he supports several different people, none of whom fully know what’s on his plate – but all get annoyed when their stuff isn’t done fast enough. Finally, a month or two ago someone important woke up to the fact that a counterpart office that does similar work had something like 6 people doing what my bf has been doing alone, and their workload was overall lower. Big Boss has sat down with bf since then and basically permitted him to take whatever shortcuts he needs to get through the work until they can get some more bodies in the office (government work, hiring doesn’t always work quickly). Bf is still overwhelmed and stressed, but less than he had been.

    OP, if I were you, when your manager starts throwing stuff on your desk, ask her *when* you’re supposed to do it. Not (just) a deadline, but like, when are you supposed to fit this into your day? “I’m at the front desk from now until 3, then I’m off at 5, and I have XYZ I also need to do. How should I proceed?” You might get a frazzled “I don’t know, get it done,” or you might get some kind of answer you can work with, whether that’s feedback on how to work faster, or her taking other tasks off your plate, or just telling you what to prioritize. If she doesn’t give you a useful answer, take it upon yourself to sit down for a few minutes, map out all your tasks, and try to sort out what to prioritize and when to work on things. If things slip through the cracks or don’t get done on time, tell her why – you had to prioritize ABC, plus the front-desk time, and that you planned to get to that task at such-and-such a time. Without being difficult or contentious, you’re alerting your manager to the fact there’s a problem.

  22. mf*

    Haven’t read Alison’s response, but here’s my knee-jerk response: you are not bad at your job–your manager is bad at her job (aka managing people) and your stress is a result of that.

    “I just need you do all this” is NOT an acceptable response when your employee complains about being overloaded with work. When a manager says something like that, what I really hear is, “I believe my need for you to do all this work is greater than your need to not be super stressed out and work 18 hours a day.” This is usually because the manager cares more about covering their own ass/succeeding at their job than looking out for their employees.

    If your manager was actually a competent boss who looked out for her employees, she might say something like:

    -“Yes, I see you are struggling. Let’s work together to help you prioritize what’s really important.”
    -“Okay, let’s talk about which of your responsibilities are less crucial and can be delegated to someone else.”
    -“For now, let’s try move X, Y, and Z responsibilities off your plate. If your workload lessens over time, you can go back to working on those tasks at a later date.”
    -“Let’s figure out what tasks/projects can be processed improved so you can spend less time completing them.”

    If she refuses to give you deadline, try communicating to her what you think the deadline should (based on your knowledge of the project. “I’ll aim to finish this by X date. Does that seem reasonable to you?”

    I’ve worked for managers who had similar unreasonable expectations and poor communication skills, and I’m sorry to say that it never got better for me. I found them so difficult to work with that I had to move on.

  23. Mad Baggins*

    I was in your exact same situation! It seemed like everyone around me could handle the workload except me, and I didn’t know how to stay on top of everything, or what I was even doing wrong to fall so far behind. I got really depressed about it after sending out many cries for help–conversations with my bosses, HR, colleagues–and nobody could give me concrete advice. Finally I started job hunting, but looking back I realize it was a mixture of putting in a ton of hours, having more skills, getting more support than I was getting, being more proactive and patient than I was about getting help, and being overall much more dedicated to the mission to improve the skills I lacked. I could have made it worked if I killed myself but I didn’t want to work that way. Instead I changed jobs and I have much more time to plan out what I want to do and my bosses/colleagues have more reasonable expectations and communication styles.

    So what I mean to say is, maybe it’s them, maybe it’s you, maybe it’s a bit of both, but either way it’s clearly a bad fit. If you use AAM’s great advice to change your own habits and it doesn’t work, change the “them”–get a new job! Good luck!

  24. Doctor Schmoctor*

    I just came here to tell you I love the Tetris analogy. I’ve been in your situation and that’s EXACTLY what it feels like

  25. roshi42*

    Just a very simple thing, but it took me a while to realise this for myself… when writing a to-do list for the day or planning your week, BE REALISTIC!

    When you have a billion deadlines bearing down all at once, especially things you’ve had to delay or let slip and are now late and being chased, it is always tempting to resolve to sort all of them that day – so you can ‘catch up’ and start afresh the next day.

    But this cannot happen – there simply isn’t enough time. So you don’t complete your list and all the planned tasks for the rest of the week are bumped. It’s demoralising and bad for planning and communicating progress.

    It took me ages to realise I was doing this and to start writing a reasonable to-do list for the day – at first it felt like I was taking it too easy on myself and scheduling too little to do. I had to learn to accept that I wouldn’t be able to get to every urgent priority in one day, and that things would be late and some things would have to be left undone.

    Actually this led to clearer prioritising – what was the MOST important most important thing?! And I was able to look ahead a bit and let people know earlier that deadlines would need to be changed. And in the end I spent less time panicking and even sped up my work a tiny bit. Not to mention, it really improved my mental health to be able to complete a planned day!

    1. Silver*

      I listen to the Productivity Alchemy podcast and it inspired me assess my abilities and make my own planner. I limited it to just four to-dos a day (although I can put more in the space at the end of the week). Now I usually actually get everything done on the list.

  26. anyone out there but me*

    OP your post made me have anxiety because it reminded me of my former boss. She was of the “Why do a couple of things really well when you can half-ass 40 things all at once?” Nothing was ever finished, she absolutely thrived on being in crisis mode at nearly all times. She loved overbooking her to-do list and schedule to the point where she woke before 5am and did not go to bed until after midnight because there was always a project to do or a function to attend. The big problem between us was that she believed everyone should be just like her. We butted heads for several years until I finally left. Best decision I ever made. I should have left much sooner.

  27. Deathstar*

    Happened to me, and asking myself this same question all the time was beginning to wear my confidence down. Thankfully a new job came through, and when documenting the handover it was clear that a) I had been given a slightly disproprotionate amount; b) that once I was given reasonable time to deal with it, rather than constantly pulled in all directions than one, i saw that I was organised and thorough with details. So it wasn’t all on me. And my boss had anxiety about allowing me to go on leave in case work wasn’t done.

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