Setting Work Boundaries

You plan to spend your entire morning doing research for an advertising campaign, something you’ve already had to put off for more than a week. Just as you’re digging into your work, your manager swings by to ask you to proofread a client e-mail. This request is followed by one from your co-worker who wonders if you want to have a "working lunch" to brainstorm ideas for her upcoming project. Do you, as is typical, agree to all these requests?

If you want to move ahead in your career, the answer should be no. It may seem counterintuitive, but spreading yourself too thin means that the quality of your work suffers. Setting limits at work will prevent you from being overloaded and help you do your best on the projects that are most important. Following are some tips.

Just say no—diplomatically. Not lending a hand isn’t always easy. Most company cultures encourage taking on whatever comes your way; in fact, many creatives believe turning down a project is equivalent to career annihilation. After all, why would the creative director promote you when you tell him you can’t help out with a last-minute print ad? The trick to avoid committing to too many projects, however, is to give your colleagues options. In the example above, you might say to the creative director, "While I’d really enjoy the opportunity to work with you on this project, I have looming deadlines on x, y and z. Would you like me to reprioritize those projects? By honestly explaining your situation and offering an alternative, you’re still being a team player.

You’re not the center of the universe. Sometimes people overcommit themselves because they mistakenly believe no one else can do the work better. Usually, however, this is not the case. You might believe you are the only one who can alter a Photoshopped image so it looks "just right," for example. But chances are you’re not the only person who can accomplish this task. Learn to delegate projects, and not only will you have more time for your own work, but you’ll also establish a better relationship with colleagues.

Get away, gain perspective. When your workload is at an all-time high, and three different people have just requested your help on additional projects, taking a lunch break might not seem like the best idea. But leaving the office—whether it’s for a meal or a short walk to clear your head—gives you the mental break you need to tackle your overflowing inbox at full capacity. You’ll also gain the perspective necessary to determine what needs to be accomplished now and what can wait.

Prioritize. Every time you’re asked to take on a new project, ask yourself if it’s something that needs to be done right way. Perhaps you can help out with that new logo design at the end of the week instead of right now? Knowing what tasks are most important will help you assess whether you can take on additional work. Also consider whether an extra project is preventing you from tackling your core responsibilities, which could affect your career.

Be realistic. Like the workplace equivalent of a superhero, you think you’re able to lay out a 50-page brochure, brainstorm new ideas for the annual report design, put the finishing touches on a marketing piece and tag along on a client meeting—all in one day. It’s time to get real. How much can you do—and do well—in an eight-hour day? Consider how long each project will realistically take before you over-commit yourself.

Keep in mind that learning to bow out gracefully will probably take some getting used to—on your part and on the part of your co-workers and manager. If you’ve always said yes, people will continue to expect your help when they need assistance. It’s good to communicate that you’re trying to better manage your workload, and that they might not be able to rely on you every time they need a hand. By setting boundaries and sticking to them, you’ll establish more productive relationships with clients, colleagues and your supervisor.

The Creative Group is a specialized staffing service placing creative, advertising, marketing and Web professionals on a project basis with a variety of firms.