When to Take on More Work

Two Possible Career Paths

As a person who’s interested in productivity and success, you’re probably already working at or near your maximum capacity. Even so, you probably find that people sometimes ask you to do something more. Why? Because they recognize the truth of the aphorism: “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.

But while it’s smart for them to ask a busy person to do more, it doesn’t follow that you – as a busy person –should be willing to say “yes.” In fact, I often counsel productive and successful people to begin by saying “no.”

One reason is the opportunity cost: by taking on more work, you almost inevitably have to let slide some other responsibility. It’s either that or overstretch your capabilities.  That’s why a good response when someone in authority hands you another responsibility is to ask, as innocently as you can: “What would you like me to delay or delegate so I can have time for this new item?”

If the person asking you to do additional work is not in authority over you, then it’s smart to ask yourself that same question.

But while I believe the default answer to propositions that you get busier – when you’re already working at maximum – should be “no,” in this piece I’m going to contradict myself and outline some situations in which you might actually want to say “yes.”

When It’s an Important Learning Opportunity

One of the best ways to learn is by doing, and this is particularly true if you will be doing the new work alongside one or more highly experienced people. Working with people who have mastered a particular skill set or type of opportunity offers you a rare and marvelous opening to leap forward along your career path.

But even if you won’t be joining a highly qualified team, the opportunity to experience new situations, learn new skills, and acquire new knowledge is often a good enough reason to accept some additional responsibility.

When It’s a Chance to Prove Yourself

Some career paths pencil out like smooth curves heading steadily upward. But sometimes, your upward path looks somewhat like a set of stairs: one or more almost vertical upward slopes interspersed with relatively level plateaus. It’s important you recognize and accept those upward steps whenever they present themselves.

These upward steps tend to bring challenges you’ve never before encountered. Sometimes, these challenges come from opportunities you can arrange or manufacture for yourself. Sometimes they are part of a test thrown your way by people who want to see just how capable you are.

Either way, these difficult tasks, projects, and goals offer clear and unmistakable ways to prove yourself worthy of larger responsibilities and rewards. They deserve your enthusiastic commitment and best efforts.

When It’s a Risk Worth Taking  

No one can tell you how much risk to accept in forging your path forward. But there is some level of risk that makes the most sense in your work or your life.

Obviously, too much risk is foolhardy and – when you too often bet on “long shots” that have little chance of succeeding – you are practically guaranteeing yourself at least the occasional failure.

But taking too little risk is also a mistake. Limiting yourself by staying entirely within your comfort zone will prevent you from exploring and utilizing the full measure of your gifts, talents, and strengths.

Taking prudent risks will:

  • Bring you into situations where you can learn, grow, and expand your range of competence.
  • Expose you to new people, some of whom will have a positive impact on your life, and some of whom will become important friends.
  • Give you experience in making good choices and effectively navigating the world, so you can make better choices in the future.
  • Help you deal more effectively with failures, which all of us must face from time to time.
  • Nurture and strengthen your track record, confidence, and self-esteem.
  • Provide opportunities for successes that you otherwise would not enjoy.

In addition, your willingness to take prudent risks helps set you apart from other people and creates opportunities to express your values in concrete actions.

As I’ve said, the default answer to propositions that you do additional work or take on additional responsibility should normally be “no.” But in certain situations, a judicious willingness to say “yes” can pay very large dividends.

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