When I was in the early stages of my various careers—both as an executive assistant and later, when I retooled as a freelance writer—I was all about the overdelivery. I had read in some business book that the secret to becoming a valued employee was to always turn things around a little bit faster and a little bit better than expected. To go the extra mile, if you don’t mind the cliché.
And I did become a valued employee—and, later, a valued freelancer. I got a reputation for being able to work both quickly and well, which is the kind of thing you need in today’s fast-paced, knowledge-driven workspace.
But I was still trying to overdeliver, as much as I could: turning freelance assignments in ahead of schedule, always agreeing to take on last-minute articles, and so on.
And then something changed.
Technically, two things changed. First, I had enough freelance work on my schedule that I couldn’t effectively continue to complete it ahead of schedule. I still hit all my deadlines, but I wasn’t sending my editors drafts three days in advance anymore.
Second, I got to the stage of my career where people started seeking me out. Instead of having to pitch for every job I got, I’d get emails inviting me to consider taking on new clients.
And that’s the point, I think, at which you can stop overdelivering and just start delivering.
Dr. Alice Boyes, former clinical psychologist and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit, explains in the Harvard Business Review that while overdelivering can be a useful skill at certain points in your career, perpetually overdelivering comes at a cost:
Understand what it’s costing you to always aim for outperformance. What else don’t you have time, energy, attention, and willpower for? Perhaps your own health, your big goals, or your family. If you assess that the costs are significant, try having a rule of thumb for when you’ll overdeliver. For instance, you might decide that in three out of ten situations in which you have the urge to do so, you will, but not in the other seven.
She suggests switching to a mindset in which you give your employer and/or clients exactly what they ask for, within the discussed time frame—because that’s what both of you agreed to, after all. Doing extra work without extra compensation isn’t going to help your career as much as you might think it will, especially if you’re in the part of your career where you’ve already established a professional reputation and skillset.
In other words: Once everyone you work with knows you can deliver, you can stop worrying about overdelivering.