Think about your average work week: How many of your daily tasks fit into the original job description you were hired to do?
Chances are that, over time, out of an eagerness to prove yourself, you’ve taken on a number of responsibilities that fall well outside the realm of your core role. But how much of this newfound accountability is contributing to your professional advancement—and how much of it is just running you ragged?
Top performers can be a prime target for additional requests because they enjoy challenge and frequently seek out new ways to demonstrate their skills. But do you find yourself saying yes every time your boss asks you to take a stab at a project that’s in no way related to your core competencies simply because you want to look like a team player?
If you do, you may find yourself on the brink of burnout, living at work, and unable to find time for yourself or friends. And what’s worse, you may be moving through every day with a cloud of dread hovering over your head, wondering, “How on earth will I ever get all this done?”
Often, we say yes to additional projects because we think that it may pay off with a promotion, raise, or other reward. We adopt the mentality of “I just need to bust my butt for the next couple of months; then I can relax.”
Too often, those couple of months come and go, but the promotion never comes. You grow increasingly frustrated, but don’t slow down because maybe, just maybe, this month your boss will recognize all the hard work you’re putting in and it’ll pay off. It can turn into a never-ending cycle.
While there’s nothing wrong with taking on additional responsibilities, if you’re not careful to draw the line somewhere, it can become a problem. When you have too much on your plate, not only can the quality of your work start to suffer, but your relationships and commitments outside of work may take a blow as well.
Does this mean you should stop saying yes to additional responsibilities altogether? Absolutely not! But it’s up to you to make sure you’re agreeing for the right reasons.
If you’re someone who tends to agree to every additional request that comes your way, here’s how to gauge when it’s appropriate to push back.
When Your Primary Job Responsibilities Will Suffer
It can be dangerous to agree to more if it impacts your ability to satisfy the job requirements that you were hired to do.
For example, say you work in HR, but you’ve been asked to attend some marketing-related conferences because that team is short-staffed. You may soon find yourself spending so much time away from your desk at events (which, truthfully, should be done by someone who has direct client contact and knows the ins and outs of marketing—not you!) that your primary job responsibilities, like training new employees and interviewing potential hires, starts to suffer.
If it’s an assignment that will detract from your core responsibilities, overwhelm you, and compromise your ability to consistently deliver a high quality of work—all without any significant upside—it’s best to decline and focus on what’s already on your plate.
When it’s Someone Else’s Work
Is your boss asking you to do the job of an intern and change the printer ink, even though you’re a manager?
No matter your role, it’s easy to get sucked into doing tasks that “aren’t your job”—like a sales rep who finds him- or herself constantly fielding customer service calls. And there’s something to be said for adopting an all-hands-on-deck working style, but if you let it go too far, your willingness to pitch in can be abused.
How do you spot these time-sucking tasks? Ask yourself: Is this contributing to my professional development in a strategic way? If the assignment doesn’t link back to your career growth somehow, don’t be afraid to say no and shift the responsibility off your plate. (But it’s still a good idea to offer a proactive solution, like coaching another team member to do the task.)
When There’s No Exit Strategy
Don’t take on additional responsibilities until you understand the full scope of what’s involved, how long it will take, who you’ll be working with, and how long the project will last. You want to avoid miscommunication down the road, and most importantly, you don’t want it to be an open-ended arrangement. You may be happy to be a team player, but at the end of the day you have core responsibilities—and those should be your top priorities.
For example, if your boss delivers a fairly vague request, like asking you to oversee a new initiative and provide strategic guidance, get the specifics about what exactly that means. How long will you be needed on the project? Will you be expected to attend certain meetings or be on weekly calls? Make sure you have a crystal clear picture of what’s involved before saying yes in order to shield yourself from becoming embroiled in an open-ended, never-ending situation.
When it Won’t Contribute to Your Skill Set, Growth, or Network
Even an additional responsibility that doesn’t exactly fit your job description can be the opportunity to get in front of important people. For example, being asked to help create a sales deck for a company meeting is a great opportunity to get your work in front of senior management.
On the other hand, a solo project like filing old reports for your manager offers zero chance to expand your network in a meaningful way. Since it has little relationship-building potential and is essentially busy work, it’s better to pass on it in favor of stretch assignments that will help you grow.
If you do decide to decline a request, keep the conversation emotionally neutral. Focus on how it might affect the company’s goals, not your stress levels.
And if you agree to take on new work, clearly outline what you expect the new responsibility will result in—e.g., better assignments in the future, a move toward a promotion, or a mention at the board meeting—so that you don’t end up in a dead-end situation.
Learning to say yes to the right types of opportunities—and say no to others—is an exercise in setting healthy boundaries at work. Speaking up for yourself will not only save you from the anxiety of taking on more than you can handle, but it will display maturity, confidence, and strong self-management skills to your boss and others in the office.
Remember, setting boundaries and sticking to them doesn’t show you lack drive or ambition—it shows that you’re an employee of high value who prioritizes doing the job at hand.