The Subtle Art of Saying “That’s Not My Job”

The number one thing I did wrong in every job I worked in was to take on more work than I was required to. I would feel responsible — and therefore make myself responsible — for nearly everything that was going on around me, to the point where I was stepping on other people’s toes in my rush to do their job for them.
I didn’t purposefully set up to take over other people’s responsibilities. My actions resulted from a combination of lack of experience, poorly defined job descriptions, and my eagerness to help and make everyone else’s life easier all the time.
It was a big mistake because it prevented me from focusing on my actual job. It made me stressed out and not as competent as I could have been because I was so often overburdened by other people’s tasks that I mistakenly took as my own.
In my personal life, I would also find myself feeling responsible for other people’s problems. Listening to a friend open up about her issues made me feel as if it was somehow my fault she was in pain — there had to be something I could do to fix it, and if I couldn’t figure out what, I was a bad friend.
It took me a while to learn how to sit back and confidently say, “that’s not my job,” not only in a professional setting but also in my personal life. It took learning a few truths about people, about myself, and life.

Learn to be comfortable with discomfort

Part of my eagerness to take over someone else’s job came from the extreme discomfort I felt whenever someone dropped the ball and jeopardized an entire project.
I couldn’t stand heavy silence in meetings that would follow right after the boss asked these questions: what’s the status of the project? Will it be ready by the deadline? Will we have to postpone the launch? If so, why?
What went wrong, exactly?
These are questions nobody wants to have to answer, but I felt I had to, even when it wasn’t my responsibility, even when I was neither project manager, nor the one who’d dropped the ball.
My instinct was to swoop in and try to make everything ok. I felt guilty I hadn’t seen this coming and somehow prevented it.
It took some experience, and a lot of practice, to learn how to be comfortable in these moments of discomfort. It took learning how to distance myself from the situation, analyze it from afar, and understand whether something was my fault. If it were, I’d have to bear the discomfort, face it head-on, and deal with the consequences.
If it weren’t, I’d have to sit back, relax, and not let it get to me — I didn’t deserve it.
Being comfortable with discomfort means you’re comfortable watching somebody else’s discomfort — because it isn’t yours. The regret, the shame, the fear — none of those belong to you. And there’s more; you can still be empathetic for whoever owns these feelings without letting them own you.

If you’re not clear on your responsibilities, ask

Poorly defined job descriptions can lead you to take on more responsibilities than are yours in the first place.
Startups are particularly well-known for having trouble defining roles within the organization. As the company is just getting started, it’s usually understaffed, and everyone does a little bit of everything, filling up roles as the need arises. While it’s important to be a team player, especially in the beginning, whenever you’re confused about your responsibilities, make sure to ask.
Don’t fear coming up to your boss and to ask her to clarify what your responsibilities are. At first, it might feel as if you’re admitting incompetence, or coming across as a slacker who’s complaining about your workload — especially if you’re conscientious and used to taking on more than your fair share of responsibilities. However, the reality is that your boss will appreciate knowing there’s a lack of definition getting in the way of her employees being fully efficient at their jobs.

Understand that self-respect is more important than the need to please

The urge to step in and fix everyone’s problems for them might come from a need to please, probably instilled in you from childhood.
You can’t stand people being upset at you for whatever reason, and you believe the one way to prove your worth is by being useful somehow, no matter the situation.
In reality, bending over backward to please everyone around you does not guarantee they’ll respect you. First, you need to solidify your own self-respect, which includes having boundaries for what you can and cannot do for other people and for what is and isn’t part of your job.

Sometimes, listening with empathy is more than enough

In the realm of personal relationships, being able to say “that’s not my job” does not excuse you from being there for your loved ones.
It’s not your job to fix their feelings for them. It’s not your job to let their feelings overcome you and become your own — that’s not what empathy is.
It’s not your job to plow the path ahead of them in order to remove any obstacle they may find along the way.
It’s not your job to live their life for them.
Sometimes, when a loved one comes to you with a problem, there will be something you can do. But sometimes, all you can really do is listen. And while to a restless problem-solver like yourself, listening might seem like not enough; in most cases, it definitely is.
Listen, empathize, but don’t be afraid to establish boundaries and say, “that’s not my job.”
The more you’re honest about what is and what’s not up to you, the more you’ll be able to tackle your actual responsibilities with efficiency, care, and empathy.