How to Say ‘I’m Too Busy’ Without Looking Unprofessional

It’s 5 o’clock. You’ve got your computer open, phone sitting next to it, and somehow an iPad has managed to find its way onto your desk. You’re simultaneously trying to update your project manager, respond to three different slack chats, and make happy hour plans — which three hours from now you’ll have to cancel because you’ll still be in the office. Maybe it’s time to re-prioritize your schedule.


(Photo Credit: ryantron/Flickr)

The only problem is you’re busy with, well … work. It’s the whole reason you can even (sort of) pay for those happy hours, right? Maybe.

But there’s a difference between being paid for volume of work and quality of work. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your schedule, the first thing to do is to take a step back and look at your own work habits. Are you feeling overwhelmed by work because you spend the first five hours of your day on Twitter, or because you’re trying to cram 13 hours of work into a 9-hour shift? If it’s more of the latter, you probably need to have some conversations about your workload.

The struggle can be how to do that without sounding like a whiner. If you’re not high up in the office food chain, you may feel like you’re speaking out of turn. If you’re working with a new client, you don’t want to make them think you’re lazy.

When It’s Your Co-worker

Naturally, if you’re doing your job well, people are going to want your help. One or two small tasks here and there is one thing, but pretty quickly they can start to pile up into a full day’s worth of side jobs.

When it comes to telling your co-worker you’re busy, it’s about setting up boundaries. Be deadline- and solutions-focused — a near universal language in the workplace.

“Hey, I’ve got to have [blank] project finished by Wednesday afternoon, but let’s touch base about this on Thursday.” It’s a way of prioritizing what’s on your docket, and letting others know that you have something important to be focused on.

When It’s Your Client

As Minda Zetlin of Inc notes, telling a client that you’re too busy is all about relationship management. You aren’t simply saying “no” to someone, you’re thinking strategically about the long-term business implications of your response.

Start by appreciating that they want to work with you.

Even if it seems like they’re trying to overwork and underpay you, assume the best, and outline what you’re currently working on for them. If you really don’t have the time to get everything done that they want, try referring them to another colleague of yours who can split the difference. It’s not about saying “No,” but rather, it’s about adjusting expectations.

When It’s Your Boss

Finally, when it comes to your boss, it’s important to get out in front of the conversation. Don’t wait until the point of stress that you say something in anger that you’ll later regret. Schedule time to sit down with your boss, posing it as an opportunity to discuss planning and future projects.

As mentioned before, you get paid to work, so you have to balance gratitude with the confidence that your work is valuable. Be proud of what you do, and know that doing quality work is more valuable to your company that doing a lot of bad work.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your go-to way to say, “I’ve hit my limit”? Has the conversation ever gone poorly? We want to hear from you! Tell us your story in the comments below or by joining the conversation on Twitter.