Nobody loves saying "no" to requests from bosses or other work-creators in our life. But the problem is that while saying "yes" feels like a win in the short term and keeps everybody happy, it causes trouble in the long run. Your workload gets slowly, incrementally heavier until one day you look up and realize you've fallen into a pattern of just trying to keep up.
Odds are you're at least partially to blame (and I'm right there with you).
The easy answer is to simply get better at saying "no". But look in the dictionary under "no" and you'll see "easier said than done". We worry about rejecting others and/or letting them down, casting doubt on our capacity, or causing our boss to question our collaborative skills and career potential.
There are better ways to maintain a reasonable workload than just a cold refusal, however. And they'll earn you more respect, not less.
Here's how to push back on requests for more work (and look good doing it).
1. Come from a place of accountability.
Often, when someone asks you to take on something, he/she doesn't have visibility to what you've already got going on. If they knew their request would affect the quality of the work you already had to deliver, they might reconsider. And those who hand us the most work (like bosses), ironically are often the least educated on our current workload. So educate them.
Help them understand what happens if you do the work they're asking for--what else suffers. Be fact-based and unemotional when explaining and show where you're spending your time. If it helps, put your total work plan on paper to give them a visual snapshot.
As you do this, be sure to highlight any "No Fly Zones" -- projects you're working on that have fast and hard timelines/milestones that can't be missed and that might be jeopardized by distractions. As you're sharing all of this, be flexible if wiggle room arises but firm if it doesn't.
2. Give a different "yes" to requests.
Indeed, we say "yes" more than "no" because it just feels better to say "yes". But you can still give a "yes" in a different way, in a manner that still leaves the discussion feeling positive.
For example, "I can't take that on for you right now but I can....". You don't even have to meet the request half way, it's more about showing positivity and a willingness to help in some smaller way versus just saying "I don't have time" (because nobody does).
3. Use the "Bermuda Triangle of Bargaining".
When you're asked to do something, you've got three variables to work with: time, resources, and scope. These three points form a triangle, and if you're not careful, a whole lot of effort can quickly and mysteriously disappear into the center of it all.
Negotiate for variances on any of these three variables. For example, say your boss wants you to do a new report on the overall business health of your division. Maybe you can deliver it on the day he/she requests it, but you need some help from IT to pull some numbers for you. Or maybe you can deliver what he/she is asking for if you can have another week. Or, if your boss had a specific metric of business health he/she wants examined instead of "overall", that scope reduction can help you deliver the report on time without the need for extra resources. You get the idea.
4. Be careful with urgent.
We often fall into urgent, even if it's not truly important, and before we know it a day has evaporated. Urgent requests often trickle down from on high and can be charged with emotion, making it doubly hard to push back on.
But before you rush into fulfilling the request, consider the intent, source, and pattern of it.
Sometimes, the urgent request is just "passed along"-- it's urgent for my boss so it's urgent for you--and not much thought went into the request itself. It may well be the request can be met in some other, much less time-sucking/sensitive way.
Next, consider the source. If it's from three levels above your boss, sometimes it's best to just get on with it. If it doesn't have so much position power behind it, you might have the opportunity to validate its urgency.
Finally, note if the urgent request is part of a pattern you're seeing. If you spot a pattern (for example, the urgent requests always come at the end of a sales quarter as everyone's scrambling to hit the numbers) you can anticipate it and do things that avoid the associated urgency.
So, better work-life balance comes when you can better balance hard "yes's" with soft "no's".