my manager insists on unreasonable deadlines for my projects

A reader writes:

My manager regularly hands me projects that have unreasonable deadlines. I’ve tried to push back or offer alternatives, but the conversations usually go like this:

Manager: “We need to do an updated training for the Blue team. Can you do an overhaul of the materials and present it?”

Me: “Sure. It will take me some time, but I can do that. When does it need to be ready?”

Manager: “Great! We have the meeting set up for the end of next week.”

Me: “Wow. That’s an aggressive timetable because I’ll need to do X, Y, and Z to get it created. Plus I have meetings 1-4 this week and all the other things I’m working on. Can we push the date out?”

Manager: “No. Super Big Boss wants it then. You can table the other things and just do this next week.”

Me: “I don’t think that’s enough time. You know how things always come up that we’re not planning for.”

Manager: “I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen. You’ll be fine. I know you can do it!”

Me: “Could we do it in stages? Maybe X next week and then Y could be the following week to give me more time? I can get the smaller part done next week for sure.”

Manager: “Nope. It has to be everything. We have the whole team scheduled to start the project that following week, and they already have bookings. You’re so good that I know you’ll be able to get it done.”

And she’s right, I have done it, several times and done it well. But I HATE it and the timeframes are getting smaller and smaller. It’s to the point that my work is no longer great and/or it’s incomplete, and sometimes I’m not the one delivering the final product, so the unfinished product is impacting other people. When it is me responsible for the delivery, I’m frequently going into situations wholly unprepared. Even when it is something I can pull off, I lose sleep stressing about it getting done and end up working overtime (I log my hours, so my boss knows I clocked back from 7-10 pm multiple days in a week).

She knows I don’t like doing it, but I think I need to be more firm about communicating my obstacles. Or maybe I need to say no (but we’re a small team, so I know my only other coworker will get stuck with it)? Or just spectacularly fail once? As much as I hate that idea, I think my reputation could weather the hit as long as it’s something fairly low stakes. How do I say to her, “There’s no way that can happen in the timeframe you’ve given,” in a way she’ll understand?

Yeah, you’re giving her a soft no, expecting her to respect it, and she’s barreling right through it.

It makes sense that you’ve tried approaching it that way. Most of us aren’t socialized to say to our bosses, “No, I will not do that” or “No, that cannot be done.” We’re trained from the time we start working to look for ways to say yes or — when that’s impossible — to use softer pushback and expect our bosses to pick up on it. And good bosses do.

The problem is that your boss is ignoring what you’re saying. She hears your concerns and doesn’t care, and at this point she’s learned from experience that if she pushes you, you’ll find a way to get it done. Maybe it won’t be perfect, but you’ll get it finished. If she cares about “done” more than she cares about “perfect,” this is working out well for her! She runs roughshod over your objections, you feel you have no choice but to give in, and she gets what she wants.

And for the record, it’s possible that the work doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s possible that the work you consider shoddy is actually good enough for what the situation demands. Sometimes speed is more important than quality, and maybe when she’s telling you to rush through it, she’s saying she’s fine with cutting corners. It’s worth talking that through with her, because you might have different ideas about how much effort is required.

But assuming that’s not the case, or if it is the case but it still doesn’t solve the time crunch, you’ll need to take a firmer approach when your boss comes to you with an unrealistic deadline. Right now you’re asking, “Could we change the deadline?” and when she says no, you give in. What if you instead moved to a firmer “it’s not possible” framework? After all, right now what makes it possible is your willingness to lose sleep and work lots of extra hours. What if you took those things off the table? Then the conversation might sound more like this:

Manager: “We need to do an updated training for the Blue team. Can you do an overhaul of the materials and present it?”

Me: “Sure. The earliest I could get it done would be three weeks from now, because I’ll need to do X, Y, and Z to get it created. That would also mean putting projects 1 and 2 on hold until next month.”

Manager: “No, Super Big Boss wants it sooner.”

Me: “It’s a matter of X hours of work total, so it’s not possible for it to be ready next week. If it has to be ready by then, we’d need to bring in someone else to do a lot of it.”

Manager: “You’ll be fine. I know you can do it!”

Me: “No, there’s no way to do that. In the past when they’ve given us deadlines like this, I’ve made it work by logging extra hours and losing sleep, and that’s not something I am able to do again.”

To do this, it might help to imagine the tone and wording you’d use if she were proposing something that was truly and obviously impossible — even if you worked 24/7, it still wouldn’t get done. To use an intentionally extreme example, if she said you needed to be 3,000 miles away one hour from now, you’d hold firm on saying it couldn’t happen, right? You need the same mental framework here. You’re not willing to sacrifice your nights and your mental health anymore, so some things are simply not possible.

It also makes sense to talk with your boss about the pattern before another one of these assignments happens. Sit down with her and say, “Recently you’ve been giving me rush projects with deadlines that are really difficult to meet, like X and Y. The only way I’ve been able to do it has been by working late every night and not sleeping. For the sake of my health, I’m not able to continue doing that. I want to get aligned with you on what to do when we’re asked to complete things in an unrealistic amount of time.”

You also might talk with your co-worker — the one you’re worried will get stuck with projects you refuse — to let her know you’ll be setting firmer boundaries and encourage her to do the same. If you’re both saying no as a united front, you might have more luck getting through to your boss.

I don’t recommend “just spectacularly failing” in order to make your point unless you absolutely have to, since there’s a lot of risk that you’ll just be blamed for it. But if none of the above works, it might be all that you’re left with. In that case, you should explicitly warn your boss ahead of time — as in, “I need to be clear that I cannot commit to that deadline. I will do my best to get as much done by then as I can, but I do not think the whole thing can be completed then.” And then remind her again as the deadline is approaching — “I know they wanted X by Friday but, like we talked about, it’s not looking likely. I’ve worked on it solidly all week but am only about halfway through and will need at least another week to finish.” By keeping your boss in the loop, she won’t be able to say you’re blindsiding her when you miss the deadline. (And while this is going on, resist the temptation to knock yourself out to finish in time. Work steadily, but work your normal hours and don’t stress about doing more.)

If your boss objects to this approach, then the next step is for the two of you to have a conversation about what the role really requires; if your boss thinks it should require long and sleepless nights, let’s get her to say that out loud so you know what you’re dealing with … but hopefully it won’t come to that.

Originally published at New York Magazine.

{ 184 comments… read them below }

  1. The Tin Man*

    and if the pressure for this is indeed coming from above the boss’ level then the boss should also be reading advice on how to say “not possible in that timeframe” to her own boss.

    1. DataSci*

      The OP needs to lead with “The only way I could do that is by working until 10 pm multiple nights and I can’t do that”, rather than with this series of what the boss no doubt perceives as obstacles that can be overcome (competing priorities? Boss does the prioritization and tells her to spend all her time on this. Other stuff that might come up? Again, focus on this). So if it’s true that the OP can’t meet the deadline even spending all her normal working hours on it, she needs to clearly communicate that. Because I wouldn’t get that from what she describes as how the conversations (“usually go”).

      1. Echo*

        I would not even use the phrase “working until 10pm multiple nights” because then the boss will say “well, if that’s what it takes…”

        1. KHB*

          But if the boss does think you should be working until 10 pm all the time, isn’t it better to get clarity on that sooner rather than later, so you can cut your losses and get a job somewhere else with a better workload?

        2. Sleepy*

          That’s why the, and I am not able to do that, is key. OP doesn’t need to go into what else they need to do during that time, all that matters is that they can’t do work until 10 PM for multiple nights.

      2. Tracy Flick*

        I think I’d actually go with different phrasing.

        I had a horrible coworker who routinely harangued me into using my (nonexistent) free time to run errands. And I remember using this exact strategy with her – I told her that it would be possible to do x if I got up at 4:30 a.m. to travel across the city twice before work. (My typical work day ended at 11:30 p.m.)

        She didn’t hear anything except the “It is technically possible” part.

        Your boss is the same, LW. She doesn’t care about you. She feels entitled to take up a bunch of extra time that your employer is not paying you for, at the expense of your life, grad program, and wellbeing.

        You think you’re telling her no, but from her perspective “I can do it if I make myself miserable” is all upside.

        So I think instead of saying, “I can do it if I make myself miserable,” you can frame it as a hard zero-sum:

        “This project takes [x] hours. Assuming a schedule of [reasonable schedule], I can complete [x percentage] of the project before [impossible deadline]. I can finish the project by [revised reasonable deadline]. Can we agree on that?”

        “But but but but Big Boss Wants it NAOW!”

        “As I explained, this project will take [x] hours. That means that it will take [x/8] days to complete. [Impossible deadline] is only [y] days away. [x/8] days would put us on [date of revised reasonable deadline]. Can we agree on that?”

        “But but but but NOWWWWWWW!”

        “Unfortunately, this project will take [x] hours….”


        “I based this [plan and list of project components] on other similar projects you’ve assigned. Are you saying that we can cut parts of this project? Let me know which tasks I can cross off the list.”

        (When the answer is of course not:)

        “Okay, well, as I said, this list of tasks will take [x hours]. Since I’m only one person, that means it will take me [x/8 days] to complete the project, which brings us to [date of revised reasonable deadline]. Does that work?”

        And if she expects you to work 60-80 hours a week indefinitely, make her say so, preferably via email.

        If she expects you to work 9-10 hours per day per her desired project timeline, make her tell you when you are supposed to put in that additional 10/20/30/40 hours per her desired project timeline. Make her tell you that you are expected to put in 2 7-day weeks in a row or whatever. Make her sign off on it, in writing.

        And whenever you find yourself working late, ask her if you should work late or stop for the day. Make her tell you to work late. You can still refuse – just get the specific request on record via email. And if she starts ducking your emails, down tools and go home.

        And don’t let her get away with fudging the indefinite part – you can document that this is routine, not a special circumstance, and you can bring your numerous examples into any conversation you have about that.

        But it won’t work to just keep pointing out that she’s being cruel to you. She doesn’t disagree with that – she just tacitly believes that her cruelty is acceptable, and she thinks you ought to accept it yourself with a smile.

    2. LW / OP*

      Yes to this. And I’ve had conversations with her about just that, but almost everything she’s “working on getting approved” takes a year+ so I assume her requests are falling on deaf ears. I’m in year 2 of this role, and we still don’t have a decent forecasting method from workforce management even though she’s “been asking for it” for almost 20 months.

      1. Sloanicota*

        Yeah, I’ve talked to my boss so many times about the last-minute priority shuffle, so she’ll make a huge point of saying in meetings now “well, I can’t ask Sloanicota to take this on because she has so much on her plate” and then feel like she addressed my concern – except that was about … new work nobody was even thinking about when we talked, and does nothing to address my comment about the task we added last week knocking all the other planets out of alignment. Sigh.

  2. Ann Ominous*

    “ No, there’s no way to do that. In the past when they’ve given us deadlines like this, I’ve made it work by logging extra hours and losing sleep, and that’s not something I am able to do again.”

    This is the key statement.

    1. Ann Ominous*

      I also wonder if the breakdown in communication is happening between manager and grandmanager? Is the manager committing to timelines without checking with her team in order to impress her own boss? Or is the grandmanager the unrealistic one?

      Either way, with LW setting boundaries, her manager loses the ability to keep running over her and it forces the manager to change how she does business.

      1. Tigger*

        I had a similar issue at a past company, except my manager would stick up for me. Her boss, one of the company owners, stopped going to her and straight to me, demanding I do his rush project and put everything else off, because he paid my pay check and I should shut up and do anything he asks, no questions. It was very frustrating and I hope it doesn’t happen to this letter writer if the grandmanger is indeed the issue.

      2. LW / OP*

        I mentioned this in another comment, but yes to this. Anything she’s “been working on getting pushed through” takes years, not months or weeks. TBH I don’t know if it is a communication problem or they just don’t listen to her.

        1. Reluctant Mezzo*

          You need to start looking. It will never get any better. For one thing, if your work is incomplete because of horrific deadlines, they’ll just use that as a stick to beat you with. It will always be all your fault if everything is not done perfectly overnight.

          In China they call this the 9-9-6 program–working 9 to 6 six days a week. For some reason, it’s not very popular.

    2. Not teenage but still ninja turtle*

      I doubt that will work. I’ve worked at too many places where managers expect you to jump through their hoops at any cost to your own health, and if you burn out, you’re replaceable. If you say “I can do this by logging extra hours,” they think “Great! So do it.” Bonus points if you’re salaried and extra hours won’t cost the boss anything.

      The cost to the employee isn’t the key–the cost to the manager is. I’d go with “We will need an additional X hours of labor on this project. Who else are you assigning to it to support?” If no other employees are assigned, follow with, “Okay, which contractors are you bringing on to support?” If none, “Again, we need X additional hours to complete the project. There are not X work hours between now and the deadline. If there is no one else contributing work hours, then the deadline will have to be moved.” This is their project and they should pay for the hours it takes, not you.

      1. MsSolo UK*

        Yes, I think this is stronger than “I can’t work overtime any more”, because this boss is going to hear “I don’t want to work overtime any more, but if you make it more stressful to hold the boundary than it is to work overtime then I’ll cave”. LW needs to gain an early evening commitment – take a pottery class, get in to starlight walks, start dicing your vegetables for evening meals really, really small – so when boss wheedles they can be clear that they have a non-work commitment that can’t be moved, which means boss has to find those extra hours somewhere else, either with additional staff or a more distant deadline.

        1. LW / OP*

          While it seems like a commitment would help, it doesn’t. :( I’m in grad school right now two nights a week (which work is paying for) and volunteer during a third evening, all three usually require me to leave at 4:30-4:45 each day. On the day I finally broke down and wrote the letter, I logged into work at 8 am, logged out at 4:40 pm for class, then logged right back into work after class was done at 7:20 pm. I literally sat at my desk from 8 am to 10 pm because my class is online.

          1. J!*

            I find that I have more luck with “This work will take ____ hours. I am also working on X, Y, and Z. What would you like me to not do in order to meet the requested timeline for this project?” works better than trying to get into an argument with my supervisor about overtime.

          2. Beth*

            OP, you remind me of a friend and coworker of mine. She’s an incredibly hard worker and very conscientious about her work quality. Our boss noticed this–and their response has been to keep giving her more and more and more and more work. She spent years pushing back lightly: telling her boss this wasn’t realistic, pointing out the discrepancy between a standard workload and what was being asked of her, calling out the impact that last-minute deadlines were having on the quality of her work product, etc. None of it worked. Our boss knew that if they kept handing her tasks, she was conscientious enough to do her best to not drop the ball–even if it meant dropping her hobbies, her sleep schedule, and other important things in her life. So they kept handing her things, and she kept burning herself down to get them done.

            Last year, I pointed out to her that our boss didn’t do the same thing to me or other coworkers. Most of us say no when we’re handed something impossible. If we’re told to do it anyways, we email back with something that comes down to “I’m still telling you this is impossible but I’ll do my best,” and then we work on it during work hours and see what happens; the end result is generally either missed deadlines or crappy quality, and if our boss calls us on it, we refer them back to that “I told you this was impossible” email. Usually, they don’t ask us to do the impossible more than once. They kept asking my friend because she actually did make it work.

            My friend stopped trying to do the impossible after that conversation. It only took one round of dropped balls for our boss to back off on her.

            I hope you can figure out a way to do the same.

              1. Tracy Flick*

                It might help you to think about this strategy playing out.

                What are you afraid will happen if you do let the balls drop? Are you afraid you will lose your boss’s goodwill, lose out on a promotion, lose your job?

                That might help you figure out what makes this boundary hard to draw.

                It sounds like a pretty awful situation, honestly – you’re working 1.5 jobs for 1 job’s worth of salary.

          3. middlemgmt*

            Honesty, OP, it sounds a lot like my office. a while back my boss went on medical leave, so a co-worker and I were leading the department for a few months. Grandboss refused to acknowledge that missing a person meant missing their 37.5 hours worth of work per week (and even more at boss’s vp level. they were more like 50, plus we had a freeze on other open positions) and that there was no way to get everything done. as a people pleaser, he just would not tell the CEO that we needed to prioritize and pause less important things. he would rather a project limped along so that he could say it was still in progress. so we unofficially paused things on our own and any time he’d ask about them, we’d just say ‘nope, haven’t had time to move ahead beyond that last email’. and he had no real answer because he knew the amount of other work that *had* happened and no, he wouldn’t have wanted us to not do any of those other things. I don’t know what he told the CEO but that’s a him problem. and i also stopped working late, unless it’s a true emergency, or something planned in advance (like something that needs to go live after hours). i didn’t tell anyone. it wasn’t a decision as much as i just stopped doing it. and i don’t take the bait when anyone suggests/implies it. and right now? boss and grandboss need me too much to even imply. none of these are ideal scenarios, but i guess my point is it’s OK to let things be undone. it’s good to communicate with your boss like alison suggested about the impacts of the short time frame and given them a heads-up that ABC won’t be done. but also, i think you only owe that the first time you put this into action. if a manager is imposing deadlines they know are unmeetable, then they are deliberately taking advantage of you and your time to make themselves look better (like my grandboss), and therefore you don’t owe them anything.

      2. ScruffyInternHerder*

        The only time I’ve EVER gotten through to a manager was this one:

        “Which brand new customer do you wish to p!$$ off? Because you’re making that decision, not me. That failing, bring someone back on board from layoff, now. Or you’re telling me which of the two contracts with LD’s is going to get hit and which new customer is going to cease doing business with us.”

        1. Tau*

          One time, a manager was really, really, _really_ pushy about us getting a feature out by the next release milestone when we insisted there was more work necessary. But the customers! The stakeholders! We have promised to deliver this! Etc.

          After working through a weekend (this being incidentally not legal in my country), my teammates and I went to him + one of the people responsible for this product and I spelled out:

          “Look. If you force us to release this feature by X date, based on my knowledge of the corners we’d have to cut to get there I estimate a 30% chance that every single customer we have will lose all the data they have stored with us when they upgrade in a way where it is impossible to recover. Is that a risk you want to take?”

          We delayed the release.

      3. Stinky kitty*

        Or ask when manager will have W and X done so employee can get Y and Z done since “big boss wants it NOOOOOOWWW” and it’s suuuuuuch a high priority. Turn it back on them and see how high the priority really is.

    3. The Person from the Resume*

      I agree. It seems like the LW outlined a conversations in the past where she says it can’t be done because of –X–, and then the boss says I’ll remove –X– obstacle. And they repeat that for Y and Z obstacles.

      I would worry that saying “logging extra hours and losing sleep” allows the boss to say the LW can work just work OT and maybe even dangle a promise of comp time since LW now seems reluctant to give up her nights and weekends to work.

      “ No, there’s no way to meet that deadline. There’s not enough hours in work day (or work week) to meet it.” That kind of says the same thing without but seems less likely to provoke a “just work overtime” response. But not entirely unlikely, the boss sounds unreasonable.

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        This is a great point. This approach turns it into a problem-solving exercise for the boss removing obstacles. But it sounds like the bigger problem is that there is just too much to be done in the timeframe.

    4. Elbe*


      They can decide that working you to the bone is acceptable to them, but making them acknowledge that will at least let you know where you stand.

      If they hear, “This assignment will cost me stress and sleep” and they’re fine with that, at some point you just have to find a new job. You can’t make people be reasonable.

      1. anon at Cal Poly Humboldt*

        Yeah, I’ve been wondering why “find a job without an unreasonable manager” wasn’t the answer.

      2. rebelwithmouseyhair*

        The thing is the stress and lack of sleep are things OP deals with, and they have not been sufficient for OP’s work quality to be impacted. If the boss saw that stress makes OP make mistakes, or that lack of sleep means she falls asleep during meetings with clients, they’d find a way to make sure it didn’t happen again. Right now, the only person suffering is OP.

        OP you are too conscientious. I am too, but when I found out that my colleague was only completing half the amount of work I was doing, for the same pay, I slacked right off. Now I’m a freelancer so if I work my back off, I do at least bill a whole lot more.

  3. KHB*

    I don’t think the problem is that you’re giving a “soft no” instead of a “hard no.” Often, people think they’re communicating clearly when they’re actually being so wishy-washy that their meaning is getting lost – but from the sample exchange, I don’t think that’s the case here. It’s clear enough that you’re saying “no.” The reason your manager isn’t hearing you is because your manager is determined to refuse to hear you, not because there’s anything wrong with the way you’re communicating.

    So I’d skip to the big-picture conversations Alison suggests. Does this work really need to be as perfect as you’re trying to make it, or is it OK if some errors slip through if it means you get it done faster? And does your manager actually intend for you to be working 60-hour weeks (or whatever) because that’s what she thinks this role should require? Once you have those expectations out in the open, you can figure out how (or if) you want to go forward.

    1. Sloanicota*

      I did wonder, does the boss have a quick and dirty version of this in mind that OP could execute faster? We do have at least one person who can apparently never get a single thing done quickly, even though it should be something basically at hand. She apparently needs a week’s heads up for anything.

    2. DataSci*

      This, 100%. Nowhere in the sample conversation does the “extra hours” bit of working until 10 pm come up, just discussion of competing priorities. The OP didn’t actually SAY that even devoting all her regular time to this (which boss was apparently willing to let her do) wouldn’t be enough.

    3. ferrina*

      Yeah, I was reading a soft no in LW’s sample conversation. “Can I X? Can I Y?”
      I’ve had to do this before, and your part of the conversation isn’t a question, it’s a statement. “In order for me to do this, I’ll need X, Y and Z.”

      If the time frame is unreasonable, don’t say “I don’t think I can do this.” That leaves room for debate and pep talks (I’ve had several bosses that thought they could solve lack of time with a motivational speech). Say “In that time frame, I can get you X and Y. ” Boss says “What about Z?” You say “I won’t be able to get it in the time frame that you said. If the time frame is flexible, I can take a look at my calendar and let you know when I can get it to you.” Think of it as giving your boss information so they can tell you how to focus your time- not changing your boss’s desires (that’s a losing game).

      1. KHB*

        Giving your boss information is all well and good (and generally a good idea), but it’s not a magic bullet to get them to agree with you. There’s nothing stopping the boss from saying “No, you need to get X, Y, and Z all done by the end of next week, and it’s your job to figure out how to do that” if that’s what they’re determined to do. That’s why I think a broader conversation is in order, outside the context of any one of these projects, about what exactly the boss thinks “your job” entails.

        1. Water Hyacinth*

          Nothing is a magic bullet. Nothing ever stops a boss from saying “No, you need to get X, Y, and Z all done by the end of next week, and it’s your job to figure out how to do that,” not even saying they can’t work until 10 each night, and not even having a larger picture conversation. Right now, LW has tried one type of conversation, and it is useful advice to give them other types of conversations to try.

      2. LW / OP*

        I really like this wording (and am bookmarking this to refer back to it)!

        And RE the how well does it need to be done, it’s always well/to completion. The project that promoted me to write the letter was only 60% done at the deadline and when I finally finished it a week later I got some flak for it not being complete, even though I told her it wasn’t completely done at the deadline. I reminded her of the previous conversations, but still got some passive-aggressive “What do you mean it’s not done? Why haven’t you sent the final product to Jane?” in response.

        I am going to start asking in the future though, just because this one project needed to be at 100% doesn’t mean others do.

        1. LB*

          Don’t be afraid to cycle back through something you’ve already said. If you feel like you can’t do that, that’s where your soft no’s have turned into reluctant yes’s in your examples. So it would go:

          Boss: [Unreasonable request]

          You: That’s not possible in the time allowed. I could [present options for reducing quality, expanding timeline, bringing in help, reducing scale, etc]

          Boss: No, we need everything by Friday, and done perfectly.

          You: That’s not possible. Which of the options I mentioned are we most OK with?

          Boss: I want everything.

          You: That’s not going to be possible.

          Etc etc.

          It seems like you’re allowing boss to trot over your “that’s not possible” and move the conversation on, instead of you holding it firm like a fencepost. It might feel like breaking a conversational convention to not yes-and the direction your boss takes things, but remember that they are the one making things increasingly awkward.

          (P.S. I picture your boss’s demands as Veruca Salt throwing a tantrum – “I want a feast! I want a BEAN feast!” etc and always ending with, “Give it to me NOW!”)

          1. LW / OP*

            Hahaha! You’re not far off. lol

            I absolutely love the image of “holding it firm like a fencepost” and will think of that next time the unreasonable deadline issue comes up!

            1. Somebody Call a Lawyer*

              LW/OP — Thanks for engaging here! Just to underscore this point folks have made elsewhere, I’d make sure your “it’s impossible” statements are written in at least one email to her per project. I just went through a situation in which half an exchange was verbal, and the manager just completely misremembered what was said. Would hate for you to go through that re: your rush projects!

              1. TrixM*

                Totally 100% co-signed with sending a summary “as we discussed” email, with all agreed deadlines for each item spelled out in black and white. Just to save any “confusion” in future.

            2. DyneinWalking*

              OP, your boss is requesting impossible things of you. I think one problem is that you actually think that it is possible – after all, if you sacrifice absolutely everything including your sleep and well-being, you can get it done, right? But you need to stop thinking like that. The company does not own the hours of you week that they didn’t pay for, and they surely won’t be paying your medical bills if you ever break down from overwork.

              So, clearly reframe “what is possible” to “what can get done in the hours the company pays for” in your head.

              To give this a neat mental image: In Germany we have this nice idiom for something impossibly perfect: Eierlegende Wollmilchsau (egg-laying woolly milk sow). Which would be the impossibly efficient worker your manager is expecting. You, however, are just a regular sow (don’t take this personally. I just like this idiom and want to give you a memorable analogy). And you’re stuck being way too literal about how much output you can reasonably give, thinking (metaphorically), well, I can shave and milk myself, right? But with this analogy, I’m sure you understand that “in theory, you can absolutely shave a pig and milk it if it’s female” is very much not what the idiom calls for, the frame of reference here is clearly the output of sheep and cows.

              Maybe that image can help you when your manager is asking for something theoretically possible. She is asking for the equivalent of wool and milk? Don’t get lost on tangents being literal about the word “possible”, mentally translate it to “possible within the frame of reference, i.e. work hours” and answer that. And put it in writing, as many other commenters have already mentioned, so if (when) she pesters you because you “failed” you can refer her to that past email – or emails. And if your manager is asking for something impossible – like eggs – that goes doubly so. Your job is not being a woolly milk sow now needing to figure out how to lay eggs, your job is telling your manager what you can do within the frame of reference i.e. work hours and then doing that and doing it well.

              If your manager has impossible expectations that’s on her. Part of the job of being a manager is setting priorities – so tell her how much you can reasonably do and let her decide what balls can be dropped. It will be uncomfortable for you to not get everything done, sure, but if her idea of managing is just giving you input and no, y’know, managing of the work decisions, then, again… that’s her problem. Don’t make it yours.

              And also take some time to really think through how a worst-case would look, when something important fails and you didn’t sacrifice everything to prevent that (but did write down in emails that you can only do two of X Y Z). Would they fire you? (In which case you might just as well start looking for new job now, because you can’t keep making sacrifices and one day you will fail or break down). Would the result merely be that your coworkers would be stuck doing the extra work and that would make you feel guilty? But they could do just the same as you (maybe some already are!) and anyway the workload is demanded by your manager, not by you, and it’s you manager who’s at fault for overworking people. You are just one of her workers who is already breaking under the workload – and by setting firm boundaries, you can make sure that your output is reduced in a controlled and well-communicated way that the company at least could respond to if they cared. But don’t be surprised if they don’t respond in time, and don’t do their caring for them. The latter may be the hardest part, but positions that care for a company get paid way, way more than what you’re making, so at least leave that bit of work to them.

        2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Maybe you’re already doing this, OP, but try to get these things in writing as much as possible so your manager can’t conveniently “forget” what you told her.

          1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

            And if Boss is holding all these conversations verbally, send recap emails (cc yourself) to her so that you have a written record of everything that you’ve told the boss about deadlines being impossible to keep.

            1. Jellyfish Catcher*

              YEESSS: document, document, document!
              For some of those people, if it’s not in writing, it didn’t happen or was clarified. Great idea to email your manager and bcc yourself.

        3. OhNoYouDidn't*

          Put everything in writing via email. “Per our conversation, X project will only be 60% done by the deadline…” That way the gaslighting won’t go anywhere. CYA.

    4. Aggretsuko*

      Yeah, but is it socially acceptable for OP to give a hard no to a boss? Situations where it’s not socially acceptable to give hard no’s is why soft no’s exist.

    5. Insert Name Here*

      I agree that it could be the boss determined to misunderstand.

      I’ve been in situations like OP where what I said that I do not have the capacity to do the task in the allotted timeframe, but my boss thought I needed a pep talk/encouragement. Even after I asked for help and extensions and said the job was stressing me out and that I wanted to change projects, my boss didn’t listen until I said I quit. All of a sudden, my boss did have the time to support me and stop having meetings at 6 pm.

    6. cncx*

      This is exactly my problem at work, I communicate in every way I can but at some point people are simply committed to willfully misunderstanding me or doing things their way.

  4. I'm A Little Teapot*

    This kind of situation is why there’s all sorts of articles about “quiet quitting”.

  5. Mayor of Llamatown*

    I work in training and learning. This describes my last position to a T. I got so good at pushing things out quickly that then there was no need to worry about turn around times. It burned me out in less than four years. I’ve had to be really vocal at my current position (also in training) that I _can_ work very fast, and often do turn around work quickly, but its not my preferred method of working. Cursed with competence.

    1. Gracely*

      My approach in cases like that–as long as it isn’t truly urgent–is to get the bulk of the task done, but stop before it’s finished and work on my other, lower priority tasks that still need to get done. Once a reasonable amount of time has passed, I finish the new thing that was asked for. That way, I can mentally chill out, speed the task up if I actually need to, but also keep expectations at a pace where I can handle them.

      Save the urgency for urgent needs. When you do turn something around quickly b/c it’s urgent, make sure people know EVERY time that it was an exception, not the norm.

      1. BookishMiss*

        I really need to get over my anxiety over having stuff on my tasks list and use this tactic.

    2. azvlr*

      I struggle with wondering whether I’m working fast enough, so I don’t always feel confident to push back when I get short deadlines.
      I’ve been in this boat: I “can” get it done, but that type of effort is not sustainable. It also creates false expectations for managers that this is the amount of work that’s possible in a given period.

      1. Mayor of Llamatown*

        This is a constant in every training/learning organization I’ve worked in. Training is often the last consideration, so it becomes an afterthought, and then becomes the bottleneck. It’s so incredibly common. I work at a much less dysfunctional workplace now, and we still have moments like this, and it usually comes down to a sub-par learning deliverable. You just have all my sympathy/empathy.

        1. LW / OP*

          Yep – the situation that prompted me to write in was one where no one thought about training until they realized it needed to happen in the next 7 days. The other issue we constantly deal with is *people other than the training team* deciding how long training will take. Ex. People In Charge allotted 4 hours for Training X, but it will really take 12 hours or 2 hours. They just randomly pull timeframes out of the air. Drives me bananas!

          1. BookishMiss*

            Yeah this definitely sounds like my life right now, also a trainer. “Can you train 2 10-hr classes of 15 people on this new system per week for the next three months – oh and btw we have this new high profile account onboarding and we need the training materials ready to deliver in a week, and and and.”

  6. lyonite*

    I missed this one the first time around; was there ever an update? I’d love to know if the OP was able to finally get through to their boss.

    1. grumpy old lady*

      Was this an old post? Doesn’t seem to say that at the top but maybe it is from the archives. Anyway I second the motion for an update. The writer is in danger of burnout and quitting.

      1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

        Nope, it looks like we were both wrong. On THIS page, it doesn’t say a thing about being from the archives, but in my RSS reader, it starts with this: “This post, my manager insists on unreasonable deadlines for my projects , was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.” (And then the question follows.)

        1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

          (Nope, I am now correcting my correction. In my RSS feed, ALL of Alison’s articles start with that statement.)

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes — that’s not an indicator that it was published here before today, just a statement of source — because that way when sites that content scrape steal from my RSS feed, the authorship statement is scooped up along with it.

            Only my articles at Inc. are from the archives; everything else here is new material unless I explicitly label it as older.

    2. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      I don’t think this is a repeated letter. Those tend to get marked pretty clearly. I think it’s one that is on a different site, where Alison gets paid for the content.

    3. lyonite*

      Right, I think I got it mixed up with the Inc posts, which are usually revisits. Either way, I hope we hear what happened!

      1. Hlao-roo*

        Thanks for engaging in the comments section, and I hope you’re able to send in a good update soon!

  7. Neon*

    Suggested phrasing: “What you are asking for is impossible and I am not going to own the results when it’s not ready in time”.

    Don’t be shy about communicating the impossible nature of the deadline in writing, pointing out that you put it in writing, and making it clear that you’ll share that more widely if anybody hassles you about not meeting the deadline.

    1. LB*

      And if you get the boss to verbally agree to shoddy results in the given timeframe, send your boss a CYA email confirming this in writing. “Hi Boss, this is just to confirm that we’re on the same page that I will do as much of X and Y as time allows before the deadline, but that it’s unlikely that we’ll get to Z in that time. Starting work now. Thanks!”

  8. singularity*

    Reminds me of the other term I’ve heard floating around: quiet promotion. You’re competent and good at your job, so much so, that they keep adding to your responsibilities. They give you other people’s jobs to do, but with no bump in title/pay to show for it.

    It sounds like they need to hire more staff, but they’re trying to get away with using as few people as possible.

    1. Heidi*

      The OP could consider asking for more money since she’s working so many more hours and getting more work done. I’m guessing the OP would rather have reasonable hours, but some people are willing to work longer hours for a commensurate pay.

    2. ferrina*

      I’ve had this happen several times, and it is not a promotion. A promotion is recognition and empowerment- this is just becoming a dumping ground for responsibilities.

      In two cases of my “quiet promotion” the responsibilities got so extreme that I needed extra resources, including staff and public credibility. My responsibility required me to coordinate among high level stakeholders, but my title was so low that they would ignore my emails. At two different jobs I have had to ask for a title adjustment just so I could do the job! In one case my boss had the gall to tell me to adjust my title on my email signature, but wouldn’t adjust it in HR because that might require me to get a raise.

      Now when this happens, I leave.

    3. Luca*

      I call it dumping, especially when it’s responsible employees getting more work because irresponsible colleagues are incompetent or simply refuse to do the work.

    4. LW / OP*

      YEP. I’ve been pushing for a change in title and small raise for nearly a year. The issue is we don’t have a progression for this role. Boss and Grand-Boss say they are trying to get it pushed through, but I’ve been hearing the same thing for moooonths.

      I recently proposed a change in responsibilities without an actual title change just because I’m getting burnout on what I’m doing. I’m already at the top of the salary band, so I’m paid pretty well, and at this point it’s really not about the money (although it is at times it’s not an issue right now). I just need a break and a change before I burnout entirely.

      1. Kevin Sours*

        This feels a lot like “circulate your resume” territory. Top of salary band, vague promising that aren’t going anywhere, a year since you started, burnout. Your management is happy with the situation and has no interest in changing it.

  9. Nicosloanica*

    Ugh, I am a grant writer and my boss does this to me constantly. Last week at an event that went through the whole weekend she came to me about a grant due Tuesday that we hadn’t started, had never written before, and had no partners for. The truth is, yes, I can turn these around that fast, but they’re not good enough to get funded – no partner sign on, no letters of support, something half thought through – so it’s a huge waste of all of our time. I’ve only rarely managed to push back successfully. I just try to disconnect and remind myself I can’t care more about quality than she does.

    1. Artemesia*

      That must be frustrating. Have you said ‘the last 5 times we have produced a half assed proposal without partners and letters of support we haven’t even made final consideration; why don’t we take a pass on this one and identify some opportunities a couple of months out so we can do the job right and actually have a good chance of getting one of these funded?’

    2. Trawna*

      Do you have a Go/No Go process or form that your manager ignores? If so, maybe insist on it? If not, I suggest developing a form at least. It’s good as a CTA for when the score is bad, and you say “No!”.

    3. Soupspoon McGee*

      Former grantwriter here. That happened a LOT, and I started saying, cheerfully, “Great! We’ll get started now so we have a great proposal for the next round!”

      I don’t miss grantwriting.

  10. Knope Knope Knope.*

    Alison have great advice! Just a few more thoughts:
    -stop working the extra hours. Give your boss a list all your work and tell her what you will need to drop to get her request accomplished in the timeframe. Don’t ask her. Tell her. If she tells you it all needs to get done, ask her to help you prioritize what can come off your plate or get pushed back. Put that part on her.

    -ask about the finished and perfect/just on time thing. Often I have staff who think their trainings need to be done to a certain degree or “perfect” and in the interim nothing gets accomplished in an up to date way with the teams that lack training. If they can’t determine what should come out to make speed possible I’m happy to help with that part. Ask your manager about the priority. If her priority is work done perfectly, at extreme speed, with no room to shift priorities to accommodate it, then that’s not possible.

  11. Water Hyacinth*

    In situations like this, my feeling is that the boss has accepted that they will get sub par work. So just do sub par work and be OK with that. Be clear at the beginning about the limitations in a way that doesn’t make you sound like you are blowing it off. Make the conversation something like,

    “With a week to prepare, the training materials will consist of X and Y, but not Z. That’s assuming I can spend 100% of my time on it during that week.”

    If the boss pushes for Z along with A, B, and C, set that hard limit about it not being possible for you to work extensive overtime or lose sleep over it.

    1. LW / OP*

      I love this phrasing because it includes what will be finished. I know it’s similar to what can get done, but it’s explicitly telling her this is what you will have which is a different and more clear/concrete framing.

      1. Sloanicota*

        I tell myself I’m (fairly) unlikely to be fired at this point, considering I’m the only one actually doing anything, so if it’s sub-par I will definitely find that stressful and my boss might have a Sad Feeling at me, but as long as I’m communicating clearly what I can and can’t deliver within the deadline – without killing myself – I have done my job.

        1. Cayman Islands*

          I’m pretty much on Team Let the Manager Have Sad Feels, but how you manage that conversation is very, very tricky bc even when Managerial Sad Feels won’t get you fired, they can still negatively impact your career. I’m not going to let the MSF create my own Sad Feels, though.

  12. The Person from the Resume*

    LW is like Scotty (from Star Trek). LW says it can’t be done in the timeframe, then LW ends up getting it done in “impossible” amount of time (albeit not as well done as it could be, incomplete, etc). Scotty’s ability to estimate time to repair is a joke. Captain Kirk and company knows putting the pressure on him will result in a miracle.

    LW needs to be willing to let it fail. The most obvious solution is refuse to log extra hours and losing sleep. Tell the boss it cannot be done. Repeat repeatedly. If boss insists, do your best without working extra hours, and deliver the incomplete product at the designated time with information on how much longer it will take you to complete it.

    “As I told boss at the start, this task requires about 3 weeks of FTE work so this is only two-thirds complete. I can complete the rest by next Friday if you want me to contimue to prioritize it.”

    1. I edit everything*

      Didn’t Scotty say at one point that he always deliberately overestimated the amount of time it would take to get something done, as a way of controlling expectations?

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Honestly I thought that Scotty always was padding estimates is because Kirk was always “flying by the seat of his pants” and Jordi didn’t need to do that because Picard was a bit more willing to acknowledge that just because he wanted to do something didn’t make it possible to do that something.

            1. Splendid Colors*

              I always pad my estimates (and literally call it a “Scotty estimate”) because I’ve learned there are always unexpected interruptions and setbacks.

              If I say on Friday I can ship that custom order tomorrow because it’s 8 hours of work, THAT’s when something happens out of my control. The equipment can break down, the road over the mountain can be blocked, PG&E can shut off the power, the City road crew can block the exit from my parking garage, we can have an emergency in my apartment building… now I would never promise any earlier than shipping Monday, maybe Tuesday.

    2. sequined histories*

      Except we find out in New Generation Scotty was padding his estimates all along: “You’ve got a lot learn if you want to be considered a miracle-worker!”

      1. Lady_Lessa*

        I’ve learned to do that as well. Especially in formulation, there is always the unexpected, which causes you to learn new cuss words. GRIN

    3. The Person from the Resume*

      I guess my point is that nobody believed Scotty that it was impossible after the first few times he said it was impossible and did it anyway. Scotty padded his estimates and everyone assumed they were padded after the first few times.

      The LW is saying it is impossible and making it happen anyway so her “it’s impossible” isn’t being believed by her boss. She has to be willing to back up statement that it’s impossible with failure proving that it was impossible, unrealistic request.

  13. NeedRain47*

    You have convinced your boss that “impossible” means you will do it anyway. She has good reason to believe this ’cause you’re meeting the supposedly impossible deadlines.

    Stop working overtime. Next time, tell them that you will not be able give up all your weekends and evenings. Then do the best you can with the time you have, and keep your boss updated at each step as to what you’ve done and how long it took. If direct boss or grandboss refuse to change any of this, time to look for a new job.

    1. Splendid Colors*

      Yeah. “We do the impossible, and that’s what makes us mighty!” is not healthy advice from a wise character written by a wise or kind person. (It’s a Mal quote from Joss Whedon’s “Firefly.”)

      It’s unsustainable and unreasonable.

      I suggest your backup plan, for when all the “setting boundaries” and refusing to burn out over this job go whizzing over your boss’s head, should be “find time to search for another job” unless this is a field where all jobs will be like this.

  14. Jane*

    “When does it need to be ready”… Change this to, I can let you know by time X when I can have this done.

    1. Zelda*

      Yes! Came here to say this. It is in Alison’s answer, but she doesn’t explicitly discuss that aspect: LW needs to be TELLING boss when it can realistically be done (maybe with a Plan A for putting it in line after current projects and a Plan B for dropping everything) instead of ASKING boss what pie-in-the-sky notion they’ve dreamed up this time.

  15. Ben*

    Are you sure the deadlines are considered objectively unreasonable for your job? There are professions and positions where it’s considered totally normal to work at what would be 150% capacity in other jobs. If you’re in finance, a big law firm, consulting, etc., the expectation is that you will regularly get deadlines like this and you will work late nights and weekends and lose sleep until it’s done. Of course, in those jobs you are typically compensated accordingly AND everyone is ok with the premise that most people will not stay more than a few years because the lifestyle is not sustainable.

    I think you need to consider the whole situation here — are you paid to take on this kind of stress? Is it typical of the job and the industry? Are your colleagues equally stretched? Could you find another job for similar pay and less stringent expectations? These are all factors in assessing whether your expectations of “reasonable” are, well, reasonable.

    None of this is to justify the existence of such sweatshop workplaces–but they do exist, and if you work in one, you need to adjust your approach to this accordingly.

    1. Goldenrod*

      “Are you sure the deadlines are considered objectively unreasonable for your job? There are professions and positions where it’s considered totally normal to work at what would be 150% capacity in other jobs”

      I agree with this. It sounds like OP *can* get the work done by working overtime and prioritizing it. It’s just not the level of quality that she wants to turn out – but maybe the boss is fine with this.

      I don’t think this will be negotiable. If I were OP, I would think about if I can continue working this way, or if it’s time to find different work.

    2. different seudonym*

      I feel like, if this were the case, there wouldn’t be any nicey-nice circling in the conversation. Instead the manager would start indirectly and directly telling the LW that they are deficient, weak, whiny, etc. That sort of hyper-productivity culture has other features besides just the deadlines themselves.

      1. Dinwar*

        Depends on the industry. It’s not necessarily hyper-productivity, but deadlines set by outside forces. Happens a lot in construction, for example–your deadline is set based on legislative deadlines, or some third-party activity, or something.

        It gets really fun when you have to rely on a third party that you have no real control over. Daily “Why do we not have the teapot glaze yet?!” conversations get old.

        You eventually develop a thicker skin. Or stop caring entirely. Or develop coping mechanisms (healthy or not). This sort of thing is why some industries have a really high turnover rate.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          I have one particular group with truly insane deadlines that are codified and would take a literal act of Congress to fix. My favorite is the one that requires we write a 200-page report with supporting documents/exhibits in three days with little ability to prework. The team lead in that group and I often joke about making the people who came up with this schedule come and try it out for a month and see if we can’t get some breathing room.

          And, yes, those folks get hazard pay.

      2. Ben*

        I dunno, I come from the law firm side of this experience, and trust me, there are plenty of people in that world who engage in passive-aggressive intentional missing-the-point and selective amnesia rather than directly confront an employee over something like this.

        It may be articulated clearly as a deficiency for the first time in a performance evaluation. Or maybe never, if despite the “whining” the work is getting done adequately.

        1. JustAnotherKate*

          Yes, some law firm partners even do both depending on the project/deadline — sometimes they’re passive-aggressive, sometimes just plain old openly aggressive! I admit, I miss money, but I don’t miss that law firm life AT ALL.

    3. happybat*

      I’ve long wondered if these hyper productivity fields are also fields where poor quality work is normalised.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        It is not. I worked in BigLaw for years, and clients don’t pay hundreds of dollars and hour for shitty work. It better be timely and damn near perfect, even if you don’t sleep for three days to get it done.

        If anything, in my experience, lawyers tend to overwork things and don’t know what “good enough” is and where it’s appropriate.

    4. LW / OP*

      I absolutely get your meaning with this comment — The industry and role I work in is not known for having tight/unreasonable deadlines, in fact our projects usually involve a certain amount of research, design, etc. before you even start creating a product that I’m unable to do in these quick turnaround situations.

      My boss and the org both preach work-life balance, and I genuinely think they mean what they say… until someone else above her asks my boss for a product that I need to turn around in a week. She wants to look good so she doesn’t push back, and I bear the brunt of that. As far as my colleague (singular not plural) goes, it is one person and the position has been open and unfilled since early August. We began interviews two weeks ago and have pretty much stalled out on them. While this has been a problem for two years, I always has another superstar who could divide and conquer the work (or at least spread the projects out between us).

      1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Bosses and organizations nearly always talk a good game about work-life balance. They may even believe what they’re saying. But the proof is in how they act and your organization does not actually care about work-life balance if they’re OK with you working a ton of overtime on the regular to deal with ridiculous timelines.

      2. Ben*

        So you’re infinity times more productive than your colleague!

        Sounds like a management issue rather than a professional expectations one, then. Good luck. Unfortunately, you have made the grave error of proving yourself a capable and effective employee.

        You’ve got some good advice throughout here… my addition is to make sure that your boss truly knows how this has you feeling, because it sounds like they cannot afford to lose you. Having one superstar employee doing two people’s work and burned out to this point is simply not in anyone’s interest and they should remedy it ASAP if they care about the organization, let alone your personal well-being.

        1. LW / OP*

          100% to your entire comment. I’ve said things in other conversations, sometimes in jest and sometimes very serous about the impact it is having, but I honestly think this needs to be a sit down conversation just about the unreasonable deadlines.

        2. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          This is a great point, Ben. Unless you’re dealing with people totally disconnected from reality, your organization REALLY needs you, OP. And your boss knows it.

          You’re doing two people’s work and they’re having trouble filling the open position. You have much more power in this situation than you might think because it sounds like if you leave, they are absolutely f***ed.

        3. allathian*

          This is one situation where I might advocate telling your manager that this situation has become so intolerable that you’re looking for a new job. Normally I wouldn’t do that, but I seriously doubt that you’d get fired for looking, because they’re going to be up shit creek with a leaky canoe and without a paddle when you do leave.

      3. Kevin Sours*

        The fact that your organization can’t hire suggests that other people are hiring and offering a better deal when doing so.

    5. Octopus*

      I’m so glad to see this response. I have a staff person who believes all requests are unreasonable, but it’s due to him being a poor fit for our field. Our field does require juggling whatever issue is front of you next and rebuilding your to-do list frequently, and this guy just isn’t wired that way. It leaves him frequently overwhelmed, which is hard to combat when it’s a personality mismatch. Yay government and no way to fire……

  16. Web Crawler*

    My team is stuck in a cycle like this, except everyone is maintaining their boundaries. So the work doesn’t get done within the impossible timeframe, and then management extends the deadlines, rinse and repeat. It’s gotten ridiculous at this point. Management hasn’t learned, and now they believe that the impossible deadlines are what’s motivating us to do any work at all.

    Every retrospective meeting, the team lead says to management “stop giving us deadlines that we both know are impossible- all you’re doing is undermining your credibility”. And every meeting, management says “no, because how else can I pressure you to work hard?” I’m job searching, and I get the feeling that some of my coworkers are too.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Someone who thinks their key motivator is to create unworkable deadlines and false urgency needs to reconsider their line of work. No one likes to constantly feeling like they’re being set up to fail.

      And I say that as someone who works in an industry where there is an expectation you will get things done faster and better than is possible in the time allotted. We negotiate all the time like OP describes doing – there is a lot of truth to “cheap, fast, good – pick two”.

  17. GreyjoyGardens*

    What everyone else is saying – I think it’s best to drop the rope. If you can’t get it done, well, half-ass it and explain that this is what you get if you ask for X in such a short time frame.

    TBH, a spectacular failure might just do the trick. You say your reputation can take the hit as long as it’s something low-stakes. Then maybe it’s time to do it, not just drop the rope, but untie the rope and let everyone else tumble. My only caveat is *if* you are in a close-knit or competitive industry, where people can easily close ranks against you, or find someone who is willing to grind themselves into dust just for the opportunity, step more carefully. But sometimes, letting everything go ker-splat in a very public way is the only thing that will make the higher-ups wake up and smell the burnout.

  18. shruggie*

    From someone who has gone the spectacular failure route: if you must take this option, CYA. Don’t just warn your boss, but also recap your discussions in email so you have documentation of their approval. You can CC in coworkers or higher-ups who might be affected, too, or just save that email til you need it. You may also benefit from a transparent conversation with coworkers (maybe the person who will be presenting a half-finished product, for example) about the likely failure, how it might affect them, and that you’ve proposed alternatives but they were rejected.

    This can be a really effective route, but you need to be prepared so you’re not the one everyone looks to when the dust clears.

  19. Elbe*

    The example that the LW gave is a perfectly clear method of communication. The manager understands what is being communicated. Generally, people understand a soft no, because they are the norm in most English-speaking cultures.

    Maybe the unreasonable demands are coming from above her and she doesn’t have the authority to make them more reasonable. Or maybe she’s just okay with the LW being stressed constantly. I have a feeling that moving to a hard no is not going to get this LW anywhere. The manager can officially assign the LW a task even if the LW objects.

    It may be worthwhile for the LW to describe what CAN be done in that time frame. Outline the corners that will be cut, the topics that won’t be covered, the quality that will be sacrificed. As long as the manager understands the consequences, the LW can move forward with reducing the “scope” of what is being asked.

    1. Zelda*

      “It may be worthwhile for the LW to describe what CAN be done in that time frame.”

      That seems like a really useful version of what I was saying above about telling Boss what’s possible rather than asking what Boss wishes were true.

      1. LW / OP*

        Agreed — another commenter gave some great wording for “This is what I will produce by X date,” that I’m bookmarking for the next time this comes up. It’s a framing of “this is what you will get” vs. “this is what I can reasonably do” which makes thigs a bit more concrete and she will know what she’s agreeing to get from me.

  20. Sara without an H*

    Hi, OP — Frankly, I think you really need to go straight to having that big picture conversation with your boss. (Preferably when you’re not in the middle of a rush project.) Because I’m really wondering if you and she are on the same page about what your job entails.

    You seem to focus on quality, while she seems more concerned with getting it done fast/impressing senior management. Can you explore this more with her? Is she under pressure from her own seniors? But I think you need to clarify with her what her standards of quality are, when and how much overtime is expected, etc.

    If you are too far out of alignment on these issues, it may be time to look for another job. But do have that conversation with her first.

    1. KHB*

      Yes, I agree, and I said something similar to this above. This is a matter of fundamental mismatch of job expectations, not of failure to say “no” clearly enough in the moment.

    2. Ann O'Nemity*

      Yes, I also think the OP and boss need to get on the same page about expectations. It sounds like the OP is looking to complete high quality work with stable priorities, realistic deadlines, and a reasonable workload. And it sounds like the manager cares a lot less about those things. A big picture conversation may reveal if compromise is possible, or if the OP would be better off in a new job.

    3. LW / OP*

      You’re 100% right. I’ve said things in jest, said things when we are chatting, etc. but there has not been a “we need to sit down and talk about this” conversation yet. Partly because I have only had 3-4 structured 1:1 with her that weren’t an annual review in two years.

      Let that be a lesson to managers–don’t cancel your 1:1s with your people. If we were still having them, I wouldn’t need to make a big deal out of this by scheduling a meeting (which is probably why I haven’t done it yet) and we could just discuss it in a 1:1. But yes, point taken and agreed with. I need to get that talk over with and soon.

  21. Beth*

    I’ve found that there’s a lot of power in being able and willing to say “no” firmly, but also cheerfully. I used to think that saying no was really risky–that it was very likely to cause conflict, make me look like a lazy or incompetent worker, or leave my manager upset with me. But in my experience, if I maintain a friendly tone and body language, it almost never actually causes problems. People are willing to accept way more than younger-me thought, as long as I stay both cheerful and firm about my boundaries.

    It probably does help that I say yes to things when I can, so overall I still come off as a team player. But as you’ve learned, OP, some people will see your general willingness to take things on and take it as an invitation to keep handing you more and more. It’s important to be able to say “I can’t do that” and stick to it.

  22. Sharon*

    I advocate a meeting between you, your boss, and super Big Boss discussing how best to anticipate and prepare for these requests for quick turnaround so that they don’t impact other deliverables. Maybe you can prepare a template training presentation to have on hand ready to tailor for any specific meeting. Maybe the Big Boss is happy to give you more lead time in the future. You can’t solve the problem unless everybody causing it is at the table.

  23. animaniactoo*

    I think the key is that you have to “fail” upfront.

    As in, you say “I am not going to be able to complete this in that time frame. I will try, but I don’t believe it will be possible.”

    And when something else crops up that urgently needs to be done, you tell her that she must tell you which one is the priority because both cannot be completed by the deadline.

    And then when you get to the deadline, if the work is not complete – you don’t turn it over to her “I’m sorry, I tried my best, but I still have I would guesstimate 2 days worth of modifications to make to finish these.”

    And then they just don’t have the materials – exactly as you advised would happen. And you say “I’m sorry, I did try but these deadlines have been getting tighter and tighter and there was just no way that I could possibly make it work, even for barely acceptable work. With an extra week’s notice, I could have made it happen.”

    Because the fact that you kill yourself to do it and turn in any materials at all is getting them through it and making them think that you’re being chicken little, rather than accurately assessing the deadline.

    If you can fail it on a lower stakes meeting first, that would be a good way to start with the impact hitting them.

    It would also be useful to explain (probably as part of the initial pushback) that the only way you’ve been able to make it work has been by losing sleep to do it and that’s had health impacts for you and you can no longer afford to cut in to your sleep time to get projects finished.

    1. Dinwar*

      “I am not going to be able to complete this in that time frame. I will try, but I don’t believe it will be possible.”

      I’d drop everything but the first sentence. The rest will be read as “I totally can do it if I just push a little harder.” Especially since the LW has done that in the past. You’re starting a negotiation instead of setting a boundary. If you just say the first sentence there’s not much room to negotiate.

  24. Don’t put metal in the Science Oven*

    I would add that the OP should document conversations in writing. Have the big picture discussion first & follow up with an email, “Summarizing our discussion…” with bullet points about timelines & priorities. When another specific impossible project is given, follow up the discussion with an email, “Summarizing our discussion, I am able to complete 1/2 of project X by this date, while not working on projects Y or Z for 2 weeks.” Or, “Quality of X will be rough draft with details 1, 2 & 3 to be completed in three weeks.”

    It helps to have the words in front of the boss in writing. Keep responding to updates in the same email thread.

    If it gets dicey, consider cc-ing the big boss. You could even have another big picture discussion letting boss know there continues to be a disconnect & you’ll be looping in the big boss on project process emails. Looping in the big boss may not be appropriate in your case. I’ve had big bosses who do not want to hear details & just want it done. So tread carefully with this.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      From some comments by OP – I think the big boss is the actual problem, OP’s boss is part as well for not being able to say that isn’t a reasonable timeframe.

      It’s a two pronged problem…..just keep putting in writing what is possible in the time they are giving….as a summary all in the same email (like suggested above) so that each project has its own thread of “this is what can get done, and this is what the time frame is for getting the rest of the project to you.”

  25. Irishgal*

    You need to stop delivering the impossible as until then you are the boy who cried wolf unfortunately. You need to sit down with your manager and explain … in the past x weeks/months I’ve been asked to drop everything and focus on whatever. As a result I am continuously working xx hours in the evenings and weekends and this is not an option going forward. Ultimately you may need to decide this job isn’t for you as a culture like that can be hard to change

    1. LW / OP*

      I think you may have a different story in mind? The Boy Who Cried Wolf is a story about someone crying out for help when there is nothing happening. That’s not what is going on here. I’m actively crying out when there is something happening and no one is hearing me, so I’m asking for advice on changing the way I cry out. The final crying out when the wolf is actually there to kill me is happening at every one of these conversations.

      1. Cayman Islands*

        From your manager’s perspective, it does sound like you are crying wolf bc you keep delivering! When you keep delivering, it sounds like you have a confidence problem rather than a “wolf eating your intestines” problem. Have that larger picture, sit down talk where you make it clear that even though you keep delivering, it comes at the cost of repeated disemboweling!

        1. Cayman Islands*

          PS, don’t wait for the next unrealistic deadline to have that conversation. Give yourself some time to gather yourself so you are not in a heightened emotional state when you have the talk, but don’t wait too long. You should probably also be prepared to need multiple larger picture talks before you really see change (assuming you will see change, which is an assumption that should be on the table for now).

      2. Hlao-roo*

        I think Irishgal is saying that the “wolf” in this case is the project not being done. You tell your manager “I can’t do [project] in [time frame],” but up until recently you have managed to finish the projects in the time frames your manager gives you, so from your manager’s perspective you are crying wolf and there is no wolf. Sounds to me like this is just starting to change, as you weren’t able to complete the latest project by the (unreasonable) deadline, so your manager is finally able to see that the deadlines are too soon for the amount of work she is giving you.

        1. LW / OP*

          This explanation helped, and yes, I see how it could be the way Irishgal presents it now. And I hate it. lol This alone is a reason to take action, I don’t want to be that person.

          1. Tracy Flick*

            Another angle to consider – you aren’t only doing a huge amount of extra work within your role. You’re also tacitly handling a manager-level problem for your manager.

            Her decisions routinely create emergencies on her projects. When that happens, you adjust priorities and allocate resources to resolve it. You quietly pick up the slack. That response isn’t your responsibility either.

            Your dedication reflects well on you, but it makes it much easier for your manager to ignore what should be her problem.

            Your manager has failed to staff your projects correctly, and that mistake should by rights lead to bad outcomes. You’re protecting her from that consequence. You should let her experience it, and let your Big Bosses see it.

      3. linger*

        The tale describes how it’s affecting your manager, rather than how it’s affecting you. Namely: so far, despite warnings you’ve made to the contrary, there have been no serious consequences — the deliverable has appeared on time. This comes with the risk of your future warnings not looking credible to your manager, even when the deliverable cannot possibly appear.

  26. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    This is when you (and your coworker) need to commit to working no more than 40 hours a week and stick to it. I have found if you give the extra time they will just build it into their schedule as a permanent thing rather than hiring what is truly needed.

    The day I knew I needed to get out of the industry I was in was when I saw a project Gantt chart that proposed a “nothing goes wrong” time line with all of us working 60 hours a week as the minimum point. In the variables was that our group could increase the time to 80 hours a week if necessary to make up for delays caused by unexpected issues.

    1. Pocket Mouse*

      That is horrifying. Good point about the overtime and stress being built into the planning.

  27. Tomato Frog*

    Yep, this is my year of learning how to say “It’s not possible to do this in this amount of time/with current staffing.” In my job, there’s been some soft pressure to start a certain project that we don’t even have the staff to work on. My boss was trying to reassure me that he didn’t think anyone would force us to start the project. I basically told him I’m not worried because we can’t do it, and they can’t make us do something we can’t do. I realize not everyone is in a position where they can draw such a clear line without fearing for their job — but the clarity has been so great. I cannot do this without working unacceptable hours/dropping essential tasks/going into a mental tailspin = I cannot do this.

    Anne Helen Peterson gave an amazing talk at the Conference on Academic Library Management that has helped me rethink my approach to being overworked. It included a line that comes to me a lot when I’m managing my workload: “if a person’s body can only create one widget a day, and they’re paid to work five days a week, and they’re told they must create seven widgets — something’s gotta break, the number of widgets or the employee’s body and health.” I’m opting to let the number of widgets break, where I can.

        1. LW / OP*

          TY for sharing the link–I absolutely LOVED this talk. I also have started reading through the links she has embedded in the talk and am finding them interesting and relevant as well.

  28. irene adler*

    Hate when this happens.
    Been there as well.
    I learned about delegating and “delegating up.”

    Boss would present a project with an impossible to meet completion date.

    My response (after indicating the deadline was too short): I would do tasks A and B. Then tell boss that co-worker needed to do tasks C and D. He would agree to that. Finally, I’d tell boss HE needed to complete task E -otherwise, we will miss the deadline. And there’s no way either of us could do task E in time to meet deadline. So dig in and help or reset the deadline. Or he needs to bring in someone else to do task E.

    Yeah, delegate up.

  29. beenthere*

    OP, I’ve been exactly where you are, except that in my case the source of the unreasonable deadline expectations was my agency’s biggest client, and my manager was unwilling to push back on them because she was afraid of the repercussions if they complained to our senior leadership. The last time this happened, I worked a solid week (including the weekend) of 12+ hour days. At 9pm on a Friday night when I said, “I’m stepping away for the evening” my manager responded “let’s just wait until we hear back from the client in case they have edits.”

    Ultimately, (and to be clear I’m not saying this will happen to you!) my manager presented my pushback on the unreasonable deadlines as an “attitude problem” and put me on a PIP, and I quit. It was clear that the company expected employees to suck it up when this kind of thing happened, and that was a dealbreaker. I should also note that this was not Big Law or Wall Street, where people get paid gobs of money to work ridiculous hours. I was not even making six figures.

    Just. Get. Out.

    1. ragazza*

      Yep. When I voiced concern about some unrealistic expectations at my old job, my boss said “Well maybe this just isn’t the job for you.” That’s why I don’t think talking to these kinds of managers will do any good.

      1. Massive Dynamic*

        “That’s why I don’t think talking to these kinds of managers will do any good.”

        Yeah, in many cases, it really doesn’t. They know what they want and they know that salaried = technically no set hours, and that’s that for them. There’s also probably significant overlap these days with these managers and the “nObOdY wAnTS tO WoRK” mgrs.

  30. Library Lady*

    I’m running into a similar issue, except I’ve taken over for my previous boss as interim director, and our board President is putting pressure on one of my direct reports to take on additional responsibilities (fundraising) outside of her normal workload, regular responsibilities, interest, and expertise because that was how our previous boss operated and he never told our president “No.” I am very concerned about this staff member’s risk of burnout, or losing her completely to another job, so my priority is to work with her to lessen/reprioritize her workload, but also work with our President on an alternative solution that doesn’t involve piling more work on an already overtaxed staff force. (Basically we either hire someone to take on this extra work, or we table it until that’s a possibility.) We did have someone previously that did fundraising, but she was hired as a member of our Library foundation (separate from the library), and she got burned out too for similar reasons, and now our President wants to make fundraising a staff responsibility because the foundation can’t afford to hire anyone new right now. I have a good relationship with our board, but because our previous boss never set limits, our President chafes when I set boundaries.

    1. Raida*

      well done you.
      It can be a constant slog to retrain someone on a reasonable expectations, your staff will very much appreciate your looking out for them

    2. No Longer Looking*

      Isn’t fundraising literally one of the only positions that pays for itself if done right?

  31. EngGirl*

    I think this is great advice if you’re dealing with someone reasonable, but based on your boss’s reaction so far I’d be willing to guess she isn’t reasonable.

    I was once asked to take on a ton of additional work, so I sat down to put together a list of all the basic things my team was being asked to do, and all the hours it would take to do them in a week. It came out to something like if we only did our base job duties and everything went smoothly that we would have less than 5 hours in which to take on any of this additional workload. I also explained that I didn’t think that this could be done with such little time. My bosses response was “well how much OT is everyone working and can you do more?” My entire team was salaried exempt

  32. Lizzo*

    I agree with some of the other comments above that your boss seems unreasonable, LW.

    For that reason, I would recommend documenting *everything* that you communicate with her about these types of things. Even if it’s just a written recap via email after you meet with her.

    Something like, “to confirm what we discussed…[details]…if I’ve misunderstood any of this, let me know.” Because she seems like the type of person who could interpret a firm NO as insubordination, and then be a jerk about it. Ask me how I know…

    Documenting things takes away her power to twist what you’ve said/what you have or have not agreed to in any particular situation.

  33. Susan+Ivanova*

    I had a job as a metaphorical bridge builder. My manager would ask when the bridge would be done. I’d say that there needed to be roads on both sides of the river first, and there was a multi-person team doing the surveying to see if a road was even possible. He’d ask me to work on building a road so the bridge could be ready on time. Even if I had the first clue how to build a road that was taking *multiple experts* to design, half the time, the road builders would decide that the terrain just wasn’t suitable for a road, or they needed to spend more time on different roads.

    I no longer have that job.

  34. Just stoppin' by to chat*

    Not sure if this has been said, but it may also be time to look for a new job. I know that’s easier said than done, but it’s just not worth your health and lack of sleep. Especially since decisions are being made about when your work will be available without your input! It would be different if your manager was asking if you could meet a specific deadline because there was a customer lined up (for example), but this is different. No one is ensuring this is feasible for you before making a decision, so please don’t sacrifice your well-being for this employer. It is not worth the sacrifice.

    And please don’t work again in the evenings. I know if may feel like you’re doing something wrong, but you’re not! The current process depends on you as an employee working crazy hours to deliver these projects, and that’s not sustainable. So like Allison said, just work your regular hours (and even take sick days if you have any, make plans for evenings and weekends if you want) so you have things in your life outside of work. Good luck!

  35. Wow, really?*

    Is the OP’s boss passing work to her that the boss was supposed to be doing for the grandboss? “Oh sure, I can get that done, no problem! — HEY OP!”

  36. Raida*

    “You’re so good that I know you’ll be able to get it done.”

    “No. Sorry [Manager], but this isn’t a case of me just needing you to believe in me. The deadline is too short. I can do X well by then, plus a light overview of Y and Z. I cannot do XYZ.
    So, how does X plus an overview of Y and Z sound for the planned meeting? Afterwards I can give you a timeline for al XYZ to be completed.”

    and if they keep going, just “You should inform [Grandboss] that X will be presented at the meeting. I’m going to email you a reiteration of the timeline, I will not cop flak for any misunderstandings on XYZ being available when it isn’t.”

    That moves the responsibility to the manager, gives them a task to do, and instead of being a negotiation it’s simply me telling them when what will be available.

    if they fail to communicate the reasonable outcomes available to [Grandboss], then I’ll forward the email with the timeline to them. They won’t fckn screw it up a second time.

  37. Flash*

    Elon musk just told twitter employees to work 12 hour days seven days a week or they would be part of his purge…sounds like a great boss

    1. Aglet*

      The CEO he fired made $30M+ last year. If the other employees are making anywhere near that, or anywhere near 1/30 of that, at least they’re being well compensated for it, just like the other long hours, big money jobs sometimes mentioned on this blog.

  38. Xaraja*

    The way my brain works is that I always work quickly and accurately. I get a lot done, and generally bosses love that. But the thing they never understand is that I don’t have a faster speed. I have only one speed, the one I always work at. Giving me more work or pushing deadlines isn’t going to get me to work even faster, it’s just going to stress me out (which will probably slow me down or cause mistakes). Count yourself lucky I do the work of two people without trying and don’t plan on being able to have me work faster in a crunch. This is just how I’m wired.

  39. Some dude*

    Boss: “You need to do X. How much time do you need?”
    Me: “That will take 5 days.”
    Boss: “OK. Can you have it on my desk tomorrow?”
    Me: “No. It will take 5 days.”
    Boss: “But we need it tomorrow.”
    Me: “That’s physically impossible.”

    And then it takes 5 days.

  40. Sutemi*

    Based on your comments above, it seems like a system failure that no one thinks about training until deployment. Can you set up a monthly meeting with the project leads to get a schedule of the upcoming deployments? Is there a project milestone email distribution you can get added to? Is there another way to proactively reach outside of you management line so you have insight into the upcoming training development needs?

  41. lnelson1218*

    I read on one of these boards someone also was getting too much pushed her way. (His way?)
    At one point, she had a enough drew up on a white board behind her desk what was currently on her plate with hours to complete the various projects whose they were and deadlines.
    Like others asking for help went no where.
    And also, since she was supporting a few managers and covering a maternity leave for the office manager(?), the one thing she stuck to was “if you are going to put your project ahead of other manager’s, you have to explain to so-and-so why.”
    Apparently it worked, they bought in a temp to help with the work load.

  42. Somehow_I_Manage*

    This post makes me really thankful for my boss.

    The only advice I’d mention to OP is that it *sounds* like their boss is willing and able to negotiate on nearly everything but the due date. And with that in mind, perhaps OP can slightly change tactics:

    Manager, here’s what you can do to make it happen!
    – “Can you take X, and Y off my plate so I can focus on Z?”
    – “Can you pull Jenny off another project to support me?”
    – “Normally this presentation includes items A-G…I think we can make it work on schedule if we cut out B and D. Will that be alright?”
    – “Can you make time to check in with me mid-week to evaluate progress in the event we need to re-calibrate or throw more resources at this?”

    I realize this is only subtly different…but the point is, let’s assume your manager is right and we can’t be flexible on the date. It is the one thing they can’t offer you. Let’s instead ask them for what they can offer.

  43. rebelwithmouseyhair*

    You’re too conscientious, OP. There’s not enough time, but the boss knows you will make time if you have to. Which then causes stress and insomnia. But you’re the one suffering from those things, and apparently it’s not so bad that your work then suffers. If stress resulted in you making silly mistakes, and lack of sleep meant you fell asleep in client meetings, we can be sure the boss wouldn’t want you to suffer like that. But right now you’re just sucking it up.
    Does your colleague regularly get forced to do more than is possible too? If not, ask her how she deals with impossible requests and do that. It’s probably just a matter of being firm, just saying that X is not possible in that time frame, just as many people here have suggested.
    Also ask her how much she’s earning, because if you’re not earning more, while she doesn’t get hassled to produce more work than is reasonable, that’s terribly unfair. And I’ve noticed that being conscientious only means you get more work, not a promotion and not a pay rise either.

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