How to Do More by Doing Less

Nicholas Brownfield
Mar 3 · 5 min read

Have you ever noticed that some people are able to become highly regarded in their work, even though it seems like they aren’t completing as many projects or are declining work? Don’t worry they’re not gaming the system, they’re adding value in a different way and you can too. Many times, in your career you will have someone present you with a task or project that needs to be completed. This can occur at all levels of the organization. Even the CEO gets their marching orders from the board who may get direction from investors. It’s important in any situation to understand the appropriate way to intake tasks and how to respond to them. You may get tasks that make immediate sense but will often get tasks that seem odd or don’t appear to add any obvious value. Let’s talk about how to intake these tasks, how to evaluate them and how to respond if you need to do it radically differently or decline to support the tasks.


When you are presented with a new activity, the knee jerk reaction is to say yes. As human beings we are programmed to want to say yes to others, especially at work where we want to be seen as adding value to the team. This is a mistake. Before accepting any project it’s important to first understand why you’re being asked. I don’t mean why they’re asking you specifically but why they’re asking for this work to be done. Understanding why the work is being requested can give you key insight into both how the work should be done, but also if that is the right course of action. Never immediately agree to do the task but ask why. Avoid “Yes”, “Sounds good”, “I’ll get this right back to you”. You could say “Ok, you’re asking for X project and you’ll need it by X…. What is the underlying issue we’re looking to solve for? This will help me frame my work and get you the best outcome.”

After learning the exact problem that the requester is trying to solve its important not to immediately commit to completing the project. You’ll want to have some time to understand the best course of action and do a bit of research on your end to determine how to best resolve. Avoid using words and phrases like “No”, “I can’t”, “That’s someone else’s department’, “This will take a long time”. Instead use something more along the lines of “Ok, let me take this back and look at the best way to move forward. I’ll have an update for you soon.”

By avoiding saying yes, you’ve given yourself more flexibility to provide the best solution. As you research potential solutions to various problems you will find that there are often multiple paths you can take to reach a goal. In many cases it will be true that this is a project you need to tackle. In other cases you may find that the underlying issue is not an issue or strategically valuable to solve. You may also learn that there are self-service options for the request or a different department that is best suited to own that project.

Coming back with an affirmative yes, you’ll complete the work is easy. It’s not always obvious how to come back and say you don’t agree, that they should do the work, or someone else should. Let’s look at each of these.

You don’t agree

You want to be careful here. People’s feelings are involved when they have ideas and you don’t want to hurt them by being harsh in your response. Instead of saying something like, “You’re wrong”, “This won’t work” etc. Instead say something more constructive that achieves the same end result. “After reviewing this, I found that this issue is in-line with our expectations. Overall it won’t have a significantly positive effect on the business because of X. I recommend that we focus on other priorities at this time.”. In this response we’ve clearly stated that this is bad idea, but did it in a way that demonstrated why while also providing an avenue for the requestor to focus on.

They should do the work

Again, they asked you for a reason and understanding that is important to responding. Many times folks are unaware of how they can complete things on their own. By showing someone how to complete a task on their own, you empower them to becoming a better leader themselves and to be more effective in their work. Avoid saying things like “You can do this yourself”, “You know you already have this right?”, “Why didn’t you do X?”. Say things like, “I took a look at this and it appears this is any easy fix. I want to walk you through the process for you and your team to take care of this. When would be a good time?”. This way we’ve avoided refusing to do it or making the requester feel stupid. Instead we’re letting them know that we found a solution and we’re going to help them.

Someone else should own this

Many times people will reach out to whom they are comfortable with, even if that person is not the best person to handle a task. This one can often be handled in the moment but will sometimes require some research to identify who is the best solution. Avoid saying things like, “That’s not me”, “Why did you ask me”, “I only do X”. Say things like “I see, So and So would actually be the best equipped to help you with this. They’ve completed projects like this before. Why don’t we reach out to them now?”. What if you don’t know immediately? Find out! Do the networking to learn who that person is and reach out to them yourselves. Let them know about the project and how it be helpful to the organization. Get their commitment on completing it and then go back to the requestor. “Hi, I took a look at this and found that so and so would be the best for this. I reached out and they’ve committed to completing the project by X. I also let them know you’d be reaching out to confirm some of the key details.”

In all of these responses we found a way to provide a solution for the requestor and add value. We didn’t brush them off, refuse to do the work, or make them feel foolish for asking. By doing so you’ve created a positive image for yourself and increased your value to the team without actually completing the work yourself. This is a key tenant of a good leader. Know when and how to say know and/or who is the best at completing work.

Have you ever worked on projects that don’t make sense? Tell me below!

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Nicholas Brownfield

Written by

Hi! I write about leadership both personally and professionally. I’ve been in leadership roles for 20 years with both small and multi-billion dollar companies.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Nicholas Brownfield

Written by

Hi! I write about leadership both personally and professionally. I’ve been in leadership roles for 20 years with both small and multi-billion dollar companies.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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