We’ve all been there. Someone asks you to work on a project that, seen in isolation, is a reasonable request. But the kind of commitment it would entail is way too much for your busy schedule. You’d love to get out of helping entirely, or at least minimize your involvement. Yet the requester is someone you’re keen to maintain a good relationship with. What to do?
In Executive Stamina: How to Optimize Time, Energy and Productivity to Achieve Peak Performance, Marty Seldman and Joshua Seldman suggest these ways to handle this tricky — and very common — situation:
- Suggest you might be able to offer a modest amount of help — but not right now: If someone, say, asks you to join a team working on a project, you might say that, although you’re too busy to do so, you might agree later to give the team feedback on its work.
- Suggest you might be able to offer a modest amount of help right now — but none later: One option would be to say that given what else you’re dealing with the only help you’re able to provide would be to sit down over lunch sometime this week and help brainstorm ideas on how to manage the project. Then make it clear that this is where your assistance will end by adding that you’ll reconsider working on the project only if you get an unexpected cancellation, and otherwise your schedule is full up for the next 60 days.
- Offer help finding someone who could help the requester: You might point out that you’re already committed to two other projects that are high priorities, but then suggest that you know, say, an excellent consultant who could provide just the support the requester needs for her project.
- Spell out what the requester would need to do in order to make it possible for you to help out: Tell him, for instance, that it would be possible for you to assist only if he could help you make your current projects a lower priority or get some additional help such as an outside consultant, increased head count or help from someone borrowed from another department.
- Reveal your personal limits on how much you’re willing to take on: It’s quite possible the requester has no idea that, given what else you’re handling, for you to meet her request you’d have to renege on a promise you’d made to attend a family event or take a vacation. Indicate your willingness to discuss whether there’s a way you can help out to some degree, though less than what she’s asking for. But make sure she understands that, although you’re a flexible, can-do person, you will be steadfast in setting limits and boundaries in your work.