Why tasks take over, and how to put them in their place.
Every morning as I come into work a switch somewhere in my brain is flipped and I reset. Gone are my achievements, my promos, and the expertise I bring. It’s a strange sort of amnesia, a workplace Groundhog’s Day, that makes every day at work feel like a struggle to keep my head above water.
Eleven years at Google, promotions, awards, and recognition — but this reset is what I feel every day. I’ve never been described as timid or lacking confidence, yet at work, I go into survival mode. It’s emotionally draining and psychologically counterproductive to come from a place of proving yourself to yourself. A drowning person is not thinking about what’s happening on the beach. Every ounce of energy is focused on keeping afloat. When I’m in survival mode, I’m that drowning person, in the moment, just trying to keep from going under.
Swimming toward the beach
My husband, in stark contrast, is definitely swimming in the direction of the beach! We both work at tech companies, doing similar things at about the same level. He’s a product manager, and I’m a program manager — but those are distinctions without a difference. What is different is they way we think about our careers. He has been at his current position for about six months and he’s comfortably contemplating his career progression. I listen and think, “What’s this all about?”. Six promotions at Google and I’m thinking about keeping my head above water. And here’s the critical difference: he’s simultaneously doing the work and building a career. I’m in the moment. All my attention is on the work I’m doing now, which keeps me from projecting farther out.
Becoming a Taskrabbit
In survival mode, I don’t see the big things I am bringing — assets that are more valuable in the long run but less tangible in the moment. To push away insecurities, I tackle the tasks that are directly in front of me — and get an immediate, confidence-building boost. This is like fixing leaky plumbing instead of designing fixtures that won’t leak. By putting all my attention there, I’m focused on incremental, immediate achievements. That’s how I end up tasking. Tasks reinforce the idea of competence that longer term goals and bigger, riskier projects don’t. If you have insecurities, you need the reassurance you get from tasks done well and checked off the list.
The tasking trap
When you are early in your career, you are asked to do low level, short-term tasks. As you go higher, expectations change, projects are longer-term, success less certain, and the rewards much farther out. The kind of praise you thrived on early in your career would be patronizing at a more senior level. Competence is expected, not something to be remarked on. If you are hungry for constant affirmation, it is going to be hard. You need to be fed.
Here’s the thing: when you do the tasks and do them well, you settle into a comfortable but limiting place in your career. Coming from a place of tasking won’t help you advance. The higher you go, there will be less for you to do and more for your to create. You’ll have expectations to meet and targets to hit, but no one will tell you to do this, this, and this. You’ve got to figure it out.
Keeping your head above water
In survival mode you are in the moment. That makes long-term thinking hard, but it is exactly what is needed. It takes work to get out of the “head above water” mindset and realize you are actually swimming quite capably. So how do you change your perception from drowning to swimming? There’s no easy fix, but through a process of experimentation, I’ve found some things that work for me.
Awareness and trusting the evidence have helped me see what I bring and stop tasking. I’m not drowning after all.
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