How to Handle Unreasonable Time Pressure in the Workplace

The Pressure Cooker

Wanting to impress your boss is natural. If you work hard, are responsible, can be counted on to perform, can handle pressure, everybody will notice, and you move up the ladder.

What happens when your boss isn’t on the same planet, when it comes to their expectations? It’s a delicate situation. How can you possibly tell your manager you can’t handle your workload—whatever the reason. On the other hand, how can you keep quiet if you’re not going to make a deadline?  You’re setting yourself up for failure, stress and possibly looking for a new job if you keep quiet.

How to navigate the “impossible?”

STEP 1: Keep calm, always. Maintain a calm demeanor no matter what happens. This takes some practice, but the more you practice, the better you will get. Staying calm demonstrates that you have the ability to take things in stride and complete your tasks even in the face of difficult circumstances. 

I like to use the “be curious, not furious” idea here to prevent myself from spinning into oblivion worrying about how I’m supposed to get this done on top of everything else on my plate.  Instead of being furious, begin this process from a place of curiosity – “Why does my boss want me to take on this project? Is it possible that I can get it done on schedule?  What kind of support will I need?”  Curiosity will help you stay calm in the midst of the perceived chaos of the moment and helps you take the next step.

STEP 2: Do an insecurity check.

If your boss is pushing you to do more and you’re feeling overwhelmed, from this place of calm curiosity, ask yourself why you don’t think you can handle it. Is it because you really can’t do the work? Is the time frame really unreasonable? Is it outside your skill set, maybe something new that you’re not comfortable with yet?  Recognizing the reasons for your feelings may give you the comfort you need to realize that you CAN get the job done, or the information you need to move on to the next step.

STEP 3: Map the project & make a list

When you are handed a project, you’re calm & curious, you’ve done your insecurity check and still feel the pressure; map the project.  Working the project backward to determine the steps it will take to complete the project and create specific, timed milestones. This will help provide you with vision, action items, a timeline, and a way to prioritize the steps.

Next, make a list of everything you’re working on that will be impacted by the new assignment, including all the people involved in each project, and the corresponding deadlines.

A detailed list and timeline of what you’re already working on will not only help you see your workload in its entirety, and how the new project fits in.  Maybe you’re freaking out for no reason.

If you do need some help, this step will give you the backup you’ll need for the next step.

STEP 4:  Talk to Your Boss – Do it Early & Have a Plan

After you’ve completed steps 1 through 3, speak up and share your plan immediately.  It’s one thing to voice a concern, but when a deadline is at stake, what your boss really wants is a solution. Make sure you have some alternatives ready. Maybe it’s extending the deadline on another project or enlisting the help of a few colleagues. No matter what you do, don’t go to your boss empty-handed.  Be confident.  Be clear.  Be calm.

No matter what happens here, you still have a full plate of work that needs to get done.  The next two steps may seem counter-intuitive (and we’ve covered them in previous segments), but they will help you move forward in the most efficient and productive way possible.

STEP 5: AVOID Multitasking.

Stay focused on one task at a time. Even though the day may be stressful, and you have a thousand things to get done, keep your mind firmly focused on completing one task before you move on to another.  Studies have proven that multitasking leads to decreased productivity.

STEP 6: Take breaks.

Your brain can only focus for 45 minutes.  At that point, you begin losing effectiveness and efficiency. Taking short breaks helps you release pent-up stress, rejuvenates you, and actually boosts productivity. Take a walk to the restroom or just get up and move about your office space.  Listen to a piece of music.  Close your eyes.  Go outside.  Doodle.


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