An overstressed friend told me recently that her boss had counseled her to "be less responsible" at work. On the surface, it's a ridiculous thing for a supervisor to say. Who would want an employee that overlooks details, or who casually wraps up an assignment because "it's good enough"? But here's why her boss is onto something – and maybe you should consider being less responsible at work, too.
You'll learn to prioritize. Early in our careers, frankly, there's not that much going on. A CEO might get 500 or 1,000 high-priority emails a day; an assistant who's a year out of college most certainly won't. That means you have the ability to get everything done, and leave with a clean slate at the end of the day. Unfortunately, that sets a bad precedent for the rest of your career, because the higher you rise, the less likely you'll be to finish everything that's put in front of you. You have to cultivate the perspicacity to understand what's truly important, and what can be safely ignored. No one wants to be a jerk and take three months to respond to an email, or even never reply at all. But when you reach your human limits of endurance, you have to decide what matters most. As the famous 80/20 Rule has it, only 20% of our activities yield 80% of our results. The secret to professional advancement lies in figuring out which is which.
You'll learn to procrastinate more strategically. When you're narrowly focused on a task – you have to write this report, and you won't leave your desk until it's done, even if you're staring at a blank screen for hours – research shows that you're essentially putting on blinders and diminishing your creativity. Instead of forcing yourself to sit there (and producing crappy work as a result), procrastinate strategically by doing another task that feels more fun. I don't mean pseudo-productive tasks like surfing the Internet or listening to a podcast; choose another project that also has to get done, but which is more inspriring to you in the moment. In fact, that's what I'm doing now; I have to submit a list of course readings for an upcoming marketing class I'm teaching, and it's due today. It'll get done, but in the interim, writing this article – which is also useful and productive – is a much more attractive option.
You'll be forced to delegate. For most of us who were brought up to be responsible, that means guaranteeing that the job is finished and the work is done right. Unfortunately, as you ascend the professional ladder, you begin to start supervising employees. There's a word for someone who checks all their employees' work all the time: a micromanager. Your staff can't learn and grow if they're not permitted to try new things, stretch, and sometimes fail (on tasks that aren't mission-critical). Recognize the natural tradeoff: that means things won't be done up to your standards every time. But as long as they're done well enough, that's probably OK. And every once in a while, they'll be done better, and you and the entire organization will learn something. A good starting place for many professionals is tapping into the growing market of virtual assistants, who can handle minor administrative tasks that often require a lot of time to perform. I've written previously about how to work well with your virtual assistant, and three mistakes to avoid when working with a virtual assistant.
It can be painful to let go of tasks you know how to do perfectly, but you have to make room for what's most important – and recognize that the real definition of being "responsible" at work isn't about getting everything done. It's about getting the right things done.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and the forthcoming Stand Out. You can subscribe to her e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter.