If I’ve learned anything during this past year at work, it’s this: You can and should ask for help. It’s even OK to admit that you can’t, in fact, do it all and do it all well. And it’s better to ask for help when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed rather than waiting until you’re at your breaking point because that’s when mistakes and low-quality work are a major possibility. So, how do you ask for help at work? Here’s what worked for me:
1. Learn the art of prioritizing:
Step one when you have a lot on your plate is to speak up about priorities. (And being aware of the bottom line actually makes you look more senior.) If a new request is coming from your manager, say, “I’d be happy to help with that. Right now I’m working on X, Y, and Z. Can you help me prioritize so I know what to focus on first?” If it’s a colleague, try, “I’d be happy to help with that, but right now I’m working on X, Y, and Z. Let me figure out the priority level and then I’ll let you know as soon as possible.” Done and done.
2. Trim the work habit fat:
Once you have your priorities in place, notice where you’re spending junk minutes that make it more difficult to get those tasks accomplished. The site RescueTime, which looks at your daily habits online, makes it really easy. If it turns out that you’re spending way too long scrolling through your Facebook feed or reading your favorite websites (Elana Lyn’s an exception of course), you can use apps like SelfControl to block them or set time limits. And if you’ve pared down in this regard and still feel like you’re chained to your desk all day? Then it’s time to have a direct conversation with your boss.
3. Approach the conversation with a “problem-solver” mentality.
Set up a meeting outside the office—you want to make sure you can have an open and transparent conversation. Your email can simply say: “I’d like to meet to discuss my current workload, perhaps over coffee? Let me know what time and day is convenient for you and I’ll put it on the calendar.”
Then, once you’re face-to-face, propose solutions instead of just outlining the problem. As Tina Fey said in Bossypants, “Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles.” Ask yourself, Can you delegate a task to someone else? Can you hire an intern for the upcoming semester? Start your meeting by saying something like, “I want to make sure I’m doing the best job possible. Given my current responsibilities and workload, I’m having difficulty devoting enough time to X. I’d love your help prioritizing or reassessing my responsibilities, and I’ve come up with some potential solutions that I’d love to talk about.” Stay calm and confident—and remember that you’re well-prepared for this conversation, so now, your boss will be more than likely to want to help.
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