How to Say “No” to an Excessive Workload as a Developer

Written By Danila Petrova

The world of software development is a continuous race against the fast pace of the industry, with products being developed, marketed, and released to the public in a matter of months. Making your product stand out means putting in a tremendous amount of dedication and passion. This often translates to long hours.

As a responsible and experienced software developer, chances are that you have felt the pressure to carry out more tasks during your workday. You may have even tried to debug your working process to find out how you can do more in a day.

It is natural for you to have a desire to be proactive and take on more work. It makes sense to want to come across as helpful. Luckily, if you are looking to raise your productivity, there are many sources of information on how to do so. But you should be careful about how much you take on.

From working in a Java software development company, I have gained an understanding of the importance of managing the workload you take on. More is more until you reach burnout and the quality of the work you submit drops significantly.

Learning how to say “no” will help you avoid this inevitable reality.

Why You Need to Start Saying “No”

First off, why should you say “no” to helping a colleague or involving yourself more in the process of software development? After all, the project is only completed when all of its members put in proactive efforts toward completing the assignments.

Saying “yes” feels great. Helping your colleagues and receiving appreciation for it feels great, as well. Many people do this without understanding the gravity of how much this will affect their own workload. They rarely take into account the long-term effects of consistently overworking yourself: burnout.

To understand why you need to be aware of and attempt to manage your stress before it reaches burnout, you need to know how it affects you and how to notice the symptoms early on.

By definition, burnout means experiencing both mental and physical fatigue and exhaustion. It is built over time due to stress from working under difficult conditions. If not managed properly, it is easy for the state of burnout to grow into chronic fatigue and anxiety, causing a short temper as well as physical susceptibility to colds and illnesses.

The negative impact on your overall physical and mental health is often severe. The extent of it will likely vary depending on how much time you allow for the condition to build up. To protect yourself, you need to be wary and make an effort to manage your stress levels in a way that does not allow it to build up as much.

Only when I … was forced by one too many episodes of burnout did I begin to see work as an irreplaceable part of my life, but not the whole of my life. And only then did I begin to focus on what I could uniquely do instead of trying to do everything—thus beginning to be far more effective as a worker. — Gloria Steinem

The idea of saying “no” when your workload reaches levels that put you at risk of burnout is not to be less effective. Rather, it is intended to raise both the quality of life and mental capabilities of the employee, encouraging a higher quality of work, consistently. While bursts of productivity can be both necessary and helpful, they should not be relied upon as a common occurrence, nor should they be expected to work as the usual metric for productivity.

Quantity should not be prioritized over quality when it comes to the software development work process. The product needs to be functional, well balanced, and overall high quality. When you spread yourself too thin and risk or experience burnout, you prioritize quantity, and the quality of your work will suffer.

When Should You Say “No”?

Now that we have established why you need to keep in mind that saying “no” is an option, it is not to say you should always say “no” to additional work. As with most things in life, the answer is in the balance.

Being willing to assist your colleagues when they need it makes you a genuinely great colleague. Adopting a team approach in your work differentiates you and also builds a mutually helpful relationship, as you will surely run into situations where you need help yourself.

The key is to know when you can afford to take on more work. When asked, you should go through the following process:

NOTE: Naturally, it is necessary to take into consideration who is giving you the assignments. The following should be universal in making your decisions regardless of whether it is a colleague or a manager—related to making the decision of whether you should take it on or not:

  1. How many tasks do you have on your plate?
  2. What are the deadlines for your tasks?
  3. How much time do you realistically expect your own workload to take?

When talking to a colleague:

Make a decision and inform them respectfully and quickly. In the occasion you do not think you can fit the extra work in your schedule, it is better to let them know right away so they can plan for a different solution.

When talking to your manager or supervisor with a higher rank:

Ask if the additional work is urgent and of higher priority than the work you were already assigned. Then, ask what the time frame is and communicate the needed extension of the deadline on your current assignments.

A common mistake is to jump in and accept more work from your superiors without communicating the changes this will inevitably cause. On the other hand, rushing to get your existing work and the additional work done on time, without extending the time, can be extremely stressful, yet easily avoidable with proper communication.

The most important part is to be honest with yourself and the person you are talking to regarding whether the assignment is one you can fit in with your work without it throwing your own load off-balance.

In many cases, you will be able to fit it in with the rest of your work. The purpose is not to be closed off to the idea of taking on more work and being helpful, but rather to avoid making a habit of overpacking your assignments list. You need to be mindful of when taking that extra work will be detrimental to your own professional performance. Or even worse, your mental or physical health.

How Should You Say “No”?

Let’s say you have decided you have too much work on your plate to take on any more and do it at a high quality. How do you go about refusing to take another assignment?

  1. Stay respectful to the person asking for assistance.
  2. Be honest regarding the reason why you are not able to assist.
  3. Suggest an alternative: Recommend someone they can turn to instead, or suggest a different source of information.
  4. Be open to the idea of approaching your supervisor if you are consistently being assigned a high workload.

The difference between being passive and realistic when saying “no” is having an accurate understanding of what your current capabilities are. It’s necessary to adequately evaluate your abilities in relation to the work you are assigned and the time you have to get it done.

Strike a Balance Between Proactivity and Overworking Yourself

As far as work goes, there is no question that you should do all your assignments. The issue arises only when you make a habit out of piling onto your work stack. The key is prioritization, along with communicating if you are overwhelmed with too much work.

Prioritize your work, and then decide if you can take on more responsibilities based on the importance of the new work. Balance your decision to make sure the work you submit will be up to par, and the quality is not sacrificed to quantity.

In the end, it is the high-quality products that stand out, not the ones that were pushed to the market the quickest.