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How to Avoid Dead-End Tasks at Work (Without Risking Your Job)

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How to Avoid Dead-End Tasks at Work (Without Risking Your Job)

Introduction

Stuck doing tasks that provide no value to your organization? Searching for dead-end tasks can be an arduous daily grind for employees at all levels. But, finding bad work isn’t just a career killer, it’s a morale killer — no one likes wasting time! However, there are ways you can nix these soul-sucking assignments and avoid dead-end tasks; and doing so is especially important if you’re on the rise (or if simply avoiding potential dead-end task assignments).

Ask Why You’re Doing It

As soon as you find yourself staring at a project or task with no clear purpose, ask your boss why it’s being done. This question may seem simple, but in reality, it’s one very few people think to ask. Everyone just expects that the other person knows what they’re doing and why. When you take the initiative to ask this one thing, you’re showing your manager that you care about how your time is spent and want to make sure that it counts for something.

  • Understand the system in place for prioritizing work. Many organizations have a complicated system for determining which projects go first and which ones can wait until later (if ever). Often, this system is not necessarily obvious to employees unless they go out of their way to learn about it. If nobody has taken the time to explain the workflow process behind what you do each day, consider bringing this up with your supervisor/project lead/department head/etc.
  • Understand the system in place for prioritizing work. Many organizations have a complicated system for determining which projects go first and which ones can wait until later (if ever). Often, this system is not necessarily obvious to employees unless they go out of their way to learn about it. If nobody has taken the time to explain the workflow process behind what you do each day, consider bringing this up with your supervisor/project lead/department head/etc.

Communicate With Your Colleagues and Your Supervisor

The first step is to talk to your boss and colleagues. When you start a new project, ask as many questions as possible to make sure you understand what needs to be done. Discuss how the task fits into the company’s broader goals, so you can prioritize it. Find out if any specific deadlines need to be met. Is this part of a larger project? If so, what is the timeline for that? If not, why has this particular task been given priority?

Asking these questions before you get started means you’re less likely to waste time on tasks that aren’t important or urgent enough for your teammates. Get in the habit of doing this every time you have a new assignment and you’ll avoid getting stuck with tasks that don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Keep Track of the Time You Spend on Projects

Keeping track of the time you spend on projects will help you make changes to your work and improve how you’re compensated for your efforts. To start, open up a document called Time Spent on Projects. In it, record each project that takes up at least two hours of your time. Include the project name (if you have one), the type of project, when it was assigned, when it started and finished, and how long it took. While this may sound tedious at first, being aware of where your time is going is crucial if you want to change anything about how much—or how little—you work.

Every day or week (depending on how busy you are or aren’t), find the average amount of time your projects take from start to finish. This is a good ballpark figure for estimating how much time actual tasks will take in the future and can help with saying no to requests that don’t align with your goals.

Keeping track also gives you hard data on which to base negotiations about whether or not something should be part of your job responsibilities in the future and whether or not it’s worth doing at all if you aren’t going to get paid fairly for it.

Focus on What You Can Solve and Make Better, Not on How Much Work Is Involved

You can avoid ending up in my shoes by taking these three steps:

  • Be proactive about asking questions from the start. If you know little about what is expected of you when beginning a project or task, raise your hand and ask for clarification on what is needed and why. If there’s no important reason for something to be done—if it’s just somebody else’s idea (or if it just seems like busywork)—let them know that too!
  • Focus on what you can solve or make better—not how much work is involved. When tackling a seemingly insurmountable task at work, especially one that might eventually become a dead-end, focus on how your work will help other people or how it might help improve processes within your company rather than getting caught up in thinking about how much work something may take or worrying about whether or not resources will be available to finish what you start. That way at least some good can come out of it even if things don’t turn out exactly as planned! If nothing else comes from this situation except learning valuable lessons moving forward (like not wasting time doing things that won’t matter).

Think about the big picture and pin down exactly what’s most important on a day-to-day basis

Before you can effectively prioritize tasks at work, you need to establish your priorities. For most people, this means establishing both short-term and long-term goals. The former might involve completing a project on time, while the latter could be climbing the corporate ladder or improving your managerial skills.

It’s worth taking some time to think about what your actual goals are and make sure they’re given the constraints of your position. Talk about these goals with your manager—maybe he or she will have a different perspective that will help you set achievable goals in line with expectations for employees at similar levels. Then write down those goals on a piece of paper and pin it somewhere visible, like above your desk. You may also want to keep track of daily or weekly accomplishments in a spreadsheet, which is something I found helpful when I was working full-time for an online publication.*

Work toward specific goals that tie into the big picture and are clearly defined — in other words, don’t set vague goals

Work toward specific goals that tie into the big picture and are clearly defined — in other words, don’t set vague goals.

You can use SMART goals to make sure your goals follow this principle: In addition to being specific, they should be measurable, attainable/actionable, relevant/realistic, and time-bound. Setting clear objectives like this makes it far easier to determine whether or not you’re on track; if you don’t know what your “work” is because it’s too vague, then it’s hard to know if you’ve achieved anything at all. This can lead you down a wormhole of busy work — which is exactly the kind of thing that drains meaning and motivation out of your work-life experience.

Set clear boundaries for yourself by writing down your goals and posting them where you’ll see them every day. Use a planning tool like Trello to help keep yourself accountable with regular check-ins. By doing this, you’ll be much more likely to stay focused on the big picture rather than getting distracted by one-offs that might come up along the way!

Pay attention to how you feel while you’re working.

  • If you’re bored, you’re doing it wrong. “Boredom is often the sign that a job lacks the challenge to keep us engaged,” says psychologist Dr. Melissa Robinson-Brown, who notes that the feeling of boredom can mean your job isn’t satisfying enough for you to draw deep meaning from it.
  • If you’re frustrated, you’re doing it wrong. Feeling frustrated about something at work is natural and inevitable—it’s part of being human! But as Dr. Robinson-Brown explains, “chronic frustration at work can make us feel resentment toward our employers and coworkers.” If you find yourself getting more and more frustrated with particular tasks regularly, take note: this might be a sign that there’s an underlying issue in your work environment or in the type of work itself—and it could be time to figure out how to resolve those issues (or seek out a new role).
  • If you’re anxious, you’re doing it wrong. “Job stress is everywhere,” says Dr. Robinson-Brown. Feeling stressed at work from time to time is one thing; feeling chronically anxious about or overwhelmed by your tasks may be another story entirely.”

Map out a career plan ahead of time so that it’s easier to hold yourself accountable.

  • Decide what you want to achieve. Maybe it’s a promotion, growing your skills in a particular area, or learning how to be an effective manager.
  • Figure out how to get there.
  • Make a plan. This can look like using tools such as a career planner to set goals, review your progress every few months, and make changes if necessary.

If you invest some time and care in your work, you’ll probably find less dead-end work in front of you.

If you work on a team, chances are that your manager is not the one who’s assigning all of your tasks. (He or she may be the person who assigns some tasks, but there’s often an editor, lead writer, or another decision-maker for each project.) That can make it tough to figure out why you’re doing something—and whether it’s a dead-end task.

Let’s say you’re assigned to write five blog posts about “Best Workout Studios in San Francisco,” then two weeks later you’re told that your piece won’t run because better photos couldn’t be found. Last month, a co-worker was assigned to create an email newsletter that never ran—because too much time had passed since the article was published and no one wanted to send it anymore. If this has happened to you, talk with your boss or manager about where things stand. If they can’t fix it immediately—or extend deadlines so you have time to finish up and still get paid—they should be able to offer some clarity: “We needed those posts because we were pitching an advertiser, but we didn’t close the deal so they don’t need them anymore.” Or: “There was a change in direction at the management level and we decided not to do the newsletter after all.”

Asking for answers will also help with future projects: Your manager may realize that he or she needs to give more information before assigning a task. (Or if your managers say something like, “They just asked me for ‘Best Gym’ articles,” then you have even more reason to push back next time! Make sure there’s a point!) You might find yourself doing less dead-end work in the future if people start asking more questions upfront.

If you invest some time and care in your work, you’ll probably find less dead-end work in front of you.

If you find yourself repeating the same work over and over, it’s important to consider whether it’s a dead-end task with no clear purpose or goal. And if your suspicions are correct, you’ll need to figure out what to do about it.

Here’s what we recommend. Instead of taking defensive measures like complaining about the tasks or procrastinating on them, talk to your manager about why you’re stuck in this rut. You might be surprised by how often communication is the issue: either their instructions were unclear or they haven’t assigned someone else to take care of part of the process that needs tending to.

It may seem uncomfortable at first, but good managers want feedback from you on these issues! If you come armed with data (like how long it takes you to complete a certain task), they can make better decisions on where your skills are best utilized.

If you invest some time and care in your work, you’ll probably find less dead-end work in front of you.

If you invest some time and care in your work and take a moment to understand the reasons for doing them, you’ll probably find less dead-end work in front of you. This can be as simple as asking your manager why a particular task needs to be done, or what its goal is. I’ve found that many times when I’m doing something and ask “why?” my manager responds with something like “I don’t know,” meaning it’s not even important enough for her to remember why we’re doing it. That’s a pretty clear sign that we shouldn’t do whatever it is anymore.

Other than simply communicating better with managers to avoid dead-end tasks, here are some other approaches that can help:

Conclusion

Remember: the more you know about the situation, the better decisions you’ll be able to make. Your boss must want to hear from you and other people in your department, and not just because it makes them look good when they’re communicating with their bosses! When everyone is on the same page, it’s easier for everyone to work together. And sometimes, your boss doesn’t even know there’s a problem until someone brings it up. The best way for them to find out is for you to tell them.

A quick note about professional relationships: there are right and wrong ways to go about asking questions or bringing up concerns. There are also right and wrong times. For example, don’t corner your boss at an event when they’re trying to socialize (or worse, get drunk). Instead of rushing over as soon as they walk in the door, try waiting a bit before starting a conversation so they can get settled in first. And always remember: there’s nothing worse than someone who doesn’t let go after they’ve been told “no” or “I can’t help you with that” several times!

One last thing—don’t forget about yourself! Be patient if things aren’t going quite as well as expected; keep track of achievements made along the way toward achieving goals; set smaller milestones as well so progress can be measured easily; reward yourself when those smaller milestones are reached by doing something fun outside of work (like taking on a new hobby) and finally enjoy all this newfound knowledge!

Unyime Anthony is a gaming enthusiast specializing in first-in-class gaming content, including PS4, Xbox, Nintendo, and Movies, to educate and inform readers.