Taking On Too Much

There is always a time in your career where you’re asked to take on more responsibility. This is normally a good sign! It means your manager or CEO or whoever trusts you and seeks you out when problems arise. If you’re like me when I was earlier in my career, you always said yes. I thought of this as moments to increase responsibility, learn new skills, and have more impact. Now that I’m older, I am no longer so eager to take on more. When these situations arrive in my career now, I take real stock on my capability to handle the increase in responsibility. Today, I’ll walk you through the three most common scenarios you’re likely to find yourself in when this happens, and some recommendations on what to do in each situation.

Option 1: Scale
In the first situation, you have been spending years building up a team and/or some sort of scope you’re comfortable with. It could be an entire function like product, a group within a function like the email marketing team, or, if you’re an IC, an area of the code or a particular skill set the company needs. By all accounts, you’re excelling in this scope. If you’re stuck in this structure for too long, and you’re like me, you tend to get bored and are looking for new challenges anyway. This is a great time to accept the new challenge, and either empower your team with more ownership, or use some of the slack time you’ve built up from automation or process improvement to provide more value. This is usually not a confusing move. I only call attention to it in contrast to the other situations I’ll talk about in the rest of the post.


Sam Porter Bridges carries the weight of the world on his back. Don’t do this.

Option 2: Prioritize
In the second situation, you do not feel as if you’re excelling yet. You might still be building your team if you’re some sort of manager, or still learning the function if you’re an IC. Taking on more responsibility might prevent you from succeeding in your primary job, so it’s a pretty big risk. In situations like this, I generally advise people to do what they do in any sort of situation where they have too many things to do and not enough time to do it: prioritize. The difference in this situation is you have to force the person asking you for the additional scope (if they are more senior) to prioritize for you.

For example, I was working with an analyst, and he got a request from an executive at the company for an analysis he wasn’t planning on. He already had a lot of high priority stuff on his plate, so he was confused as to what to do. I told him to email back the executive, show her everything he was prioritizing and how and where this request should fit in. This forces people to acknowledge the value of the work you are currently doing and the amount of time you realistically have available for work effort. If you’re more senior, you can talk about the scope you currently have and whether it might be appropriate to shed some of that scope or de-prioritize progress to accommodate this new area. That’s a very healthy conversation to have.

Option 3: Stretch
In the third scenario, there is no ability to prioritize or shed scope, and you just have to stretch your ability. It’s important to understand this is not a sustainable state. The only way stretching works is if it is short term until you can figure out how to prioritize. Not doing so will result in failure or burnout.

Triage
There are times in a company’s lifecycle (frequently described as war time) where it feels like you might be in a position for a prolonged stretch. What this really means is you need to switch to a variation of option 2 called triage. Triage actually comes from the medical field, and is a process of extreme prioritization of who to treat when you have a large number of wounded or sick, invented for wars, of course. The process focuses on helping what you have the opportunity to meaningfully help on, ignoring things that will likely get better with you, and accepting that some things will go poorly because you do not have the resources to prioritize everything. This process is mostly associated with bugs as a company always has more bugs than it can possibly fix, but I prefer to reserve its use for periods of war time when some things will fail, and you are acknowledging that beforehand.

A mistake that can be made in triage mode inside an organization is to make a decision on what to prioritize and not re-evaluate over time or check on your assumptions. Prioritization in war time is a best guess on what’s most critical, what can fail, and what might be fine without you. If you make a mistake on the latter, it may become more critical, forcing you to change prioritization. And it can be tough to remember to stop and check up on things you’re not focused on to see how they’re doing, and also to remember to re-evaluate and re-prioritize. But it’s important to do so.


More responsibility can be a great or a troubling thing. You don’t want to fall over because too much is on your shoulders. Being honest about your capabilities at the time and the mode you need to be operating in can help prevent you from failing by being burdened with more responsibility than you can handle. Tomorrow is in your hands.

Currently listening to Run with the Floating, Weightless Slowness to by Kelpe.

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