As you progress in your career, you will get asked to take on more and more assignments. Especially if you’re good at what you do and show the potential to do even more.

So how do you decide? How do you know when to say yes?

Be strategic

Whether someone else is asking you to take on an assignment, or it’s one that you’ve come across or generated for yourself, at some point, we all run out of bandwidth to take on more.

It’s usually when we’re at our physical and mental limits that people get more particular about their standards for what they agree to take on.

In reality, the best time to get strategic about the assignments you take on and the direction of your career is well before you get to that point.

After all, the last thing you want is to be stuck with that assignment or portfolio of assignments that leaves you feeling bored, frustrated, dissatisfied, or worse.

There’s an opportunity cost

The thing is, everything you say “yes” to carries an opportunity cost. That is, you could be doing something else instead.

Take it from me – I have a tendency to get swept up by the excitement of something new and my default is to say “yes” to everything and get on with it. However, the school of life has proven time and again that I often end up saying to myself, “what was I thinking?!”.

And worse yet, my “yesses” kept me too busy to complete priority tasks.

So, before you accept any assignment and get on with it, make sure it’s worth your time. Get strategic and make sure that it supports your bigger mission and purpose in life.

Eight questions to ask

To save yourself from taking on the wrong tasks, and to set yourself up for success on the ones you do take on, here are eight questions to ask about your assignment – whether big or small – before saying yes.

  1. Importance. How does this fit into the bigger picture for the group, and how does it move the needle? Who is affected if this is done well vs. poorly? Who is the sponsor for this – and for me?
  2. Desired outcome. What does success look like, and how will it be measured? What is the expected outcome? To what standard must it be done (e.g., “quick and dirty” vs. good enough vs. perfect)?
  3. Timeframe. What is the deadline for delivering the result? What are the intermediate checkpoints?
  4. Support. What resources are available to help? To what extent will I have control over these resources or will they be shared? Who will I be working with (and do I respect them)?
  5. Priority. Where does this stack up relative to the other assignments or obligations I have?
  6. Fit. What makes me the right person to do this? How can I use my strengths to make a difference? If I were unable to do the assignment, who else would they consider?
  7. Opportunity. What can I learn from taking on this assignment? Who can I teach? Who will I learn from? What is my upside and what is my downside – from saying yes, and from saying no? What will this position me for in the future?
  8. Alignment. How does this align with my own goals and vision for my bigger future? To what extent does it bring me closer to achieving my definition of professional success, or help me explore future directions I may want to take?

Make sure you’re all on the same page

Once you’ve asked yourself these questions and made a go of answering honestly, talk to the person who is making the assignment to get their views. You’ll want to be a little artful on how you phrase the questions to make it part of the natural conversation. After all, you don’t want to appear difficult, you’re just doing some “due diligence”.

For example, in asking about alignment with your goals, you might say, “I’d like to be in a position to run a unit one day – how would this help prepare me for that?” or “what have people who’ve done this role in the past gone on to do in their careers?”.

But the bottom line is to make sure you’re all on the same page. And the best time to make sure everyone has the same understanding is right up front. That’s when you need to have accurate information on which to base your decision.

Negotiate for what you need to succeed

That’s also when you have the most negotiating power, and can turn a suboptimal assignment into one that is truly fabulous and a win-win for all involved.

And it doesn’t need to become confrontational. Sometimes, the powers that be just haven’t thought through all the nuances of what it will take for someone to be successful.

If it’s a smaller assignment, it could simply be about making sure you have access to some junior support or help negotiating competing deadlines with another manager. If it involves a transfer to a new city, then maybe it’s about having the organization agree to help your partner find a new job too. You get the picture.

It’s up to you to figure out what you need to succeed, and ask for it in terms that make it easy for others to say yes.

It’s up to you

So now, it’s time to get strategic about the work you do. Recognize there’s an opportunity cost to your time and effort.

And if it’s something you have no choice but to take on, then ask yourself how you can make it a positive learning experience.

In the end, it’s up to you to make sure it’s worth it before you say yes. No one will do that for you. In fact, they can’t. Only you know what’s right for you.

Leave me a comment and let me know what you think.