We often joke about wearing different “hats” during the workday. If you’re reviewing an intern’s work, you’ll put on your “manager hat,” and if you switch gears to talking through a problem with a client, you’ll put on your “customer service hat.” Depending on your role within the company, you might wear a dozen or more of these hats throughout any given day — and you might even be celebrated for it.
Colloquially, this metaphor works. Our professional lives are rarely as simple as fulfilling just one set of responsibilities, so it helps us compartmentalize and makes sense of our more complex tasks throughout the day.
But is this really the best way to work?
When you start a role within a company, it’s usually for a defined set of responsibilities related to your core area of expertise. As you spend more time in that role, you may be asked to take on new responsibilities, cover for someone who has since left the company, and expand your current workload to peripheral areas. Eager to get that next raise or promotion, you might take these new responsibilities on, without realizing what they’re doing to your work schedule.
This “responsibility creep” ultimately increases your workload, both in the sheer number of tasks you have to complete and the diversity of those tasks. If you’re spending more hours on work, and are forced to confront challenges outside your realm of expertise, you’re going to accumulate excess stress. And as we all know, stress changes your mind and body, making you more susceptible to illness, compromising your mental health, and even lowering your productivity. If sustained, it can even lead you to career burnout.
Specialization and Generalization
In almost any professional area, it’s better to specialize than it is to generalize, and for several reasons. Picking a single strategy and following through on it is essential if you want to pinpoint your mistakes and be consistent in your development. Spending more time on your area of expertise allows you to be extremely competitive in one area, rather than blending into a sea of people who share your limited skillsets. And of course, if you’re exceptionally skilled in one area (such as finance), you’ll naturally be more productive and make more money handling tasks related to that area, as opposed to an area you know nothing about (such as sales). In this example, any time you spend in sales will make you less productive immediately, will dampen your financial skills development, and will make it harder to gauge your career progression.
Multitasking isn’t just counterproductive; it’s actively harmful if you’re doing too much at once. Keeping with the metaphor, if you’re forced to leave two hats on at the same time while navigating an issue, you’ll be less productive in both aspects of your work.
But even if you take one hat off to intentionally switch to a new task in a new field, you might see a decline in productivity. That’s because switching back and forth between tasks, or getting distracted, can delay your focus recovery by 23 minutes (on average).
How to Deal With All Those Hats
So what steps can you take to concentrate those hats, and reduce the number of different responsibilities within your role?
- Address the issue with your boss. Talk to your boss about your current responsibilities; as long as you’re upfront, polite and willing to suggest a few solutions, they’ll probably be willing to hear you out.
- Start delegating tasks to the appropriate parties. If you have regular responsibilities that should belong to another department or another individual, start delegating them. If you hit resistance, open a conversation about hiring a new part-time employee for the overflow.
- Learn to say no. When asked to do something outside your specialty, learn to say “no” and voice your opinion. Express that your time is best spent on tasks within your realm of expertise, and offer an alternative way to get the task done.
Is It Always a Bad Thing?
We’ve spent several sections explaining the harm that wearing too many hats in your role can do, but are there any benefits to the setup?
There are a few, potentially:
- New skills. Working in different departments and on different types of tasks helps you develop new skills and abilities, which may help you in a future career. You might even use them to start a whole new career (if you’re tired of this one).
- Novel experiences. Switching hats throughout the day prevents things from getting boring. All those novel experiences may seem distracting in the moment, but in retrospect, they keep your job interesting — plus, there’s evidence that novel experiences lend themselves to a boost in memory.
- Retention and internal development. Being willing to take on new tasks, even when they’re outside your field of specialty, is a sign of your company loyalty and work ethic to your managers. Accordingly, you may be more likely to earn a promotion or other internal opportunities for professional development.
If you’re wearing too many hats, it may be interfering with the long-term potential of your career. On the other hand, it might help you develop new skills and stay more interested in your job. Only you can decide which end of the spectrum you’re in, and take the actions necessary to course-correct.