Early in his career, Jeremy Decuyper completed an internship at an investment bank in London, where it was the norm to work long hours.
He was exhausted after only three months, but the experience was formative. "I got much more clear on what kind of professional I want to become and which jobs I want to do,” said Decuyper, who is now a senior financial analyst at Coca-Cola in Brussels.
Now, with a few more years under his belt, and as a father of young children, ages 2 and 4, Decuyper has developed strategies that allow him to leave the office no later than 18:15 each day.
"I understand what matters for me,” he said. ”I want to be present for my kids, hear about their day and tell them about mine.”
Many people who long for more manageable days find they can’t make it happen because their workload continues to increase incrementally. They are victims of something known as scope creep. It starts almost without them noticing. Often, after agreeing to carry a heavier burden once or twice, they are subsequently the first person asked to take on extra work — even if it's on weekends, late at night or during vacation. The result? Those additional tasks become part of their regular job.
But is it their own fault? People who constantly face scope creep may have trouble setting boundaries. Of course, there are occasions when, if the boss asks for something, your answer should always be “yes”. But sometimes you can and should respond with a resounding "no."
Brad Worthley, a customer service, leadership and motivational consultant near Seattle in the US, said scope creep at the office may be a consequence of a low self-esteem. "If you've got low self worth, you overwork, you overdo," he said.
Strategy: Drop the pleaser mentality
A characteristic common to those who fall victim to scope creep is something simple: they are pleasers.
Pleasers think they're helping others by doing everything for everybody.
"The unfortunate part about being a pleaser is you want everybody to love you, respect you, you want to remove work for others. You want to take a bullet for the team,” Worthley said. "Unfortunately, by taking work off others' plates, you are robbing others of learning, self-discovery, confidence, praise and recognition. Pleasers think they're helping others by doing everything for everybody.”
In the end, the pleaser mentality can lead to burnout or breakdown, since, inevitably, you won't keep everyone happy. With this high cost in mind, some people are able to manage their pleaser nature better, push back and reclaim their time.
Strategy: Gain control by asking for help
Scope creep can result in feeling out of control and totally overwhelmed. Victims feel incapable of completing a project as the volume of work accelerates. With multiple balls in the air, and more being added, an increasing amount of time is needed just to keep things straight.
A person who is experiencing scope creep may be unable to enforce limits on how much work is humanly possible. The sensation of losing control is exacerbated by fear that something crucial will be overlooked, a project will veer off course, or that a mistake will be advantageous to someone else, while being detrimental to their own career. This is a familiar feeling for freelancers, who might worry that a client will move on to the next freelancer, if they decline an assignment.
Younger workers, too, can have trouble admitting they need help, said Marie-Anne Reynell, the director of development at the School of Education and Psychology at the University of Navarra in Pamplona, Spain.
"On a lower level on a team, people are very scared to put their position in jeopardy. So, they take on too much and don't say anything. It actually leads to very negative reactions within a team because they get overtaxed, they get snappy and it breaks communication."
Reynell recommends being up front and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. It’s certainly a better option for your reputation than trying to do something above your capacity and not doing it well.
The way your message is conveyed makes a big difference, too. It must be non-confrontational and, if you're turning down extra work, your "no" to the boss must be diplomatic.
"Your managers have to think you're proactive and willing to take on these new projects and think of new solutions, but that you're also realistic about what you can do," Reynell said.
Strategy: Planning, priorities, boundaries
Saying "no" effectively might come down to better prioritising and planning. Decuyper, for instance, used to stay at the office until 19:00 or 20:00 without much consequence, because he and his wife planned around his schedule. But that all changed when children arrived. “Schedules changed and priorities as well,” he said. “This is a personal choice."
He lives out those choices daily, not just as an overall philosophy. Recently, Decuyper had a presentation to deliver to management with about one week to prepare. He didn't want to be stuck at his desk late, so, he organised his schedule and incorporated a realistic amount of time to get the presentation done.
"I asked various meeting organisers if I was really needed at the meeting. If not, I just cancelled the meeting or I tried to merge meetings. I know some people who take all the meeting invites they get,” Decuyper said. “It's always a priority call about what's most important right now."
Cancelling meetings and carving out time is something Decuyper is able to do only because he has worked hard to earn the trust of his colleagues.
"If people trust you, they understand that you are setting a boundary but you will still deliver on your commitments," Decuyper said.
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