For two years, Sarah Montana worked as an executive assistant at a Manhattan hedge fund where the coffee was good, the people were nice and the work wasn’t hard. She’d taken the job for two reasons: money and stability. And she had both in spades.
“I was doing something that came pretty easily, and I was better than most people at doing it,” she says. She was so good, in fact, that other similar job offers started coming in—for 30 percent above her salary.
There was just one problem: It wasn’t a job she wanted. Ultimately, she turned them all down, instead saving up enough to leave her job and pursue a career in writing.
Still, the job was harder to leave than you’d think. Being good at something, and having people depend on you, matters—especially when you’re getting paid well for it.
It’s easy to slip into that situation, staying in a job or on a project simply because we’re good at it, even though it’s not what we want to do. Here’s what to do if you’re already there—and how to avoid the trap if you’re not.
How to Avoid Doing Work You Don’t Want:
- Be honest with yourself. Save time—and frustration—down the road by zeroing in on what you actually like to do. And what you don’t. Make sure each step you take brings you closer to what you want to be doing more of the time.
- Beware of foot-in-door syndrome. It’s tempting to take a position doing something we don’t like—or have moved beyond—just to get into a company we love. But fact is, if we take a job handling the books for a casting agency, we’re more likely to end up a bookkeeper than an actor.
- Avoid mission creep. At some point, we’ll likely be asked to perform a task that falls outside our regular responsibilities. But we can limit the risks of getting stuck doing tasks we don’t ultimately want to do by redirecting requests to colleagues when we can and setting boundaries on our involvement when we can’t.
Already Stuck Doing Something You Hate?
- Don’t phone it in. When we get a project we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, we may be hesitant to do an amazing job for fear we’ll invite more of the same. But stalling, procrastinating or doing a bad job can seriously backfire, says psychologist Ben Michaelis, PhD. The best thing to do: power through and move on.
- Have an exit plan. While it’s not our boss’s job to fulfill our professional dreams, we can talk to him (or her) about how to advance out of a job we’re good at but are ready to move beyond. If it’s an undesirable project, consider a work swap: asking a coworker who’s better equipped to handle it, and taking some of his work in exchange.
- Work your contacts. One of the best consequences of working a job we’re not wild about is the connections it can provide, says Ilise Benun, author of “Stop Pushing Me Around: A Workplace Guide for the Timid, Shy, and Less Assertive.” Focus on strengthening them while looking for an out. “Those relationships will only deepen and expand, and can lead to other opportunities,” she says.