How To Manage Unrealistic Work Demands

Unrealistic work demands: coping strategies

By Chrissy Scivicque

Does it seem like people are always slamming you with impossibly urgent requests? Do you ever feel like you'll only meet your deadlines if you work extra hours or take work home on weekends? Are the demands placed on you so intense that you find yourself wondering how anyone does it without going crazy?

Don't be a victim of unrealistic demands. You have more power than you think. Take control of your work and your life by putting an end to the madness. Here's how:

Difficult vs. Unrealistic: Recognize the Difference

First, it's helpful to remember that "unrealistic" demands are not simply "difficult" demands. You'll always have goals and expectations that make you stretch your skills and push you to perform past your everyday comfort levels. An unrealistic demand is one that simply cannot be accomplished with normal or even exceptional effort. To meet an unrealistic demand, you have to push yourself (and perhaps others) to extremes, make exceptions and/or lower the quality of your work. These actions are not sustainable and they can have a negative impact on you and others around you.

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Address It Quickly

When it comes to unrealistic deadlines, it's easy to simply hold your breath and hope for the best. What typically happens is that, as the deadline approaches, panic sets in. And as the situation grows more dire, you finally realize it has to be addressed. At that point, the people who were relying on you to meet your deadline are in a bind. They don't always have time to make the appropriate adjustments. Had you just told them earlier, it would have been easier to handle.

As soon as you know a deadline isn't manageable -- or have a sneaking suspicion that it could get thrown off track if something were to go less than perfectly -- communicate it. Be proactive. Don't wait until things are careening off course. Provide a more realistic expectation as early as possible. And give yourself some wiggle room if you can, just in case everything goes wrong. Remember: It's always better to under promise and over deliver.

Offer Explanations, Not Excuses

Take some time to explain to others why certain demands are unrealistic and why the new expectation you're setting is more realistic. A large part of why people place unrealistic demands on others is simply that they don't understand the work involved in performing specific tasks. If they think a task can be performed in five minutes, then that's how long they'll expect it to take. But many tasks appear easier than they are. Be sure others are aware of the time it takes to do things, the other people involved in getting them done, and the time frames that can be expected on a regular basis. No one drops their paperwork off at their accountant's office on April 13 and expects to have their taxes done in time. Certified public accountants set very clear expectations and people know the work it takes. Help others understand your job's expectations and give them very clear guidelines.

Again, do this proactively. Explanations happen before the problem occurs, excuses happen after. Don't wait until you've failed to meet an expectation to tell others why it happened.

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Focus on Quality

Anyone who's done home remodeling can tell you: If you want something done quickly, the quality may suffer. When workers are held to unrealistic demands, the quality of work tends to go down as people stretch to achieve something over and beyond the norm. When sales goals are unrealistic, people start using high-pressure, unethical sales techniques to make the numbers. When deadlines get too tight, people start moving quickly and are more likely to make mistakes. Commit to providing high-quality work and ask others to help you stay true to this by giving you the time and resources you need to make it happen.

Ask for Help

When people set unrealistic demands on you, they may not understand the frustration, stress, and overall negative impact it can have on you and your work. Ask them to help by considering what is truly urgent. Some people will always call a request "urgent" simply out of routine or fear that not calling it urgent will mean it never gets done. Ask them to use specific guidelines when labeling something "urgent."

Make Exceptions

No matter how hard you try to put an end to unrealistic demands, you never will. At least not entirely. So understand that you will need to, at times, attempt to meet expectations that feel nearly impossible. It's not fun but do your best and see what comes of it. No one likes a co-worker who refuses to pitch-in when needed. It has a seriously negative effect on team morale and it will probably get you labeled "not a team player." Just do your best to make exceptions rare, not a part of your daily routine.

Chrissy Scivicque, the founder of, believes work can be a nourishing life experience. As a career coach, corporate trainer and public speaker, she helps professionals of all levels unlock their true potential and discover long-lasting career fulfillment.

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