How to Survive an Overwhelming Job

What to do when the work piles up or gets too hard.

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No matter how fast you type, the E-mails keep piling up. A project seems so intimidating you don't know where to start. Terror mounts as the moment nears when you'll have to report lack of progress to your boss.

You're overwhelmed.

There are times when it seems as if the only option is to quit. But there are lots of ways to fight back without fleeing and get your job under control:

When there's too much work

Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, has a slogan, "Eliminate before you delegate." In that spirit:

Just don't do it. What would happen if some of your work simply went undone? Would the walls really come tumbling down? What if you cut your weekly two-hour meeting down to one? Or left early? If you produced five fewer spreadsheets each month, would the boss even notice?

Cry uncle to your boss. One client of mine, an accounts-receivable manager, was working through her lunch hour every day, staying late, and coming in on Saturday, and still couldn't get her work done. Finally, she went to her boss, who apologized and reassigned some of her workload. Of course, crying uncle could put you in the doghouse, but that will happen anyway if you can't handle the workload. Better to 'fess up now before the consequences multiply.

Delegate. A lower-level employee might be flattered that you trusted her enough to do some of your work. Or others might welcome the chance to curry favor or work with you.

Hire a virtual assistant. If there's no one you can delegate to, see if your company will hire an intern to help you out. Or take a lesson from Ferriss and use agencies such as Brickwork India and Your Man in India, to hire a high-quality "virtual assistant" for $6 to $15 an hour. A VA can create documents, conduct basic market research, and even answer routine E-mails, and it might be worth the money even if you have to pay out of your own pocket. Your time is probably worth much more than $10 an hour.

Avoid needless perfectionism. One of my clients prided himself on his perfectionism yet complained of overwork. I told him to try doing one project to just the 85 percent level. No one complained, and he enjoyed getting it done without the nit-picking required to get it to 100 percent. On most jobs, "good enough" is often just as good as "perfect." Sometimes, better.

Find an easier way. Try a videoconference instead of flying to a satellite office. If you're a manager doing reviews, shorten the meetings by E-mailing your employees drafts of your evaluations ahead of time.

When the work is too hard

Use the "Hey Joe" technique. In other words, just ask for help. Sure, it sounds obvious, but many workers are too stubborn or embarrassed to ask. Yet friends and colleagues are a plentiful source of free advice. If that doesn't work, join or start an online chat room for people in your field, such as those at Yahoo!

Hire a coach or tutor. Before seeking a professional, consider asking a respected retiree in your field, or a professional on family leave; someone might offer more tailored advice.

Sign up for a short course. Webinars, teleconferences, online classes, and even some in-person programs often offer maximum benefit per hour of class time. Generally, the most practical and up-to-date ones are offered through your employer, a professional association, or a college extension program. University courses tend to be more theoretical than practical.

Trade tasks with a coworker. A lawyer client of mine felt intimidated in the courtroom but loved legal research. She traded tasks with another attorney in the firm who had the opposite inclinations.

When there's too much stress

Most of us recognize the symptoms: We feel edgy or anxious, have trouble concentrating, get headaches, or wake up worrying in the middle of the night. Here are some ways to take the edge off at work:

Be in the moment. Don't think about all the work ahead of you or about what would happen if you screwed up. Just keep thinking, "What's the wisest thing for me to do this second?"

Breathe. As yogis have known for thousands of years, even just 10 deep breaths from your diaphragm can, well, breathe new life into you.