can I flat-out refuse to do a project?

A reader writes:

I’ve been away from office life for a while, so I’m not sure if this is a problem of me not understanding the hierarchy or what. Here’s the issue:

I work in a field that is heavily deadline-based — think government contracting and you’ll be in the right ballpark. Once in a blue moon, a contract comes across our desk that has no deadline.

At my new office, we’ve had one of these pending since… before I started. Every few months, my boss hauls it out, demands impossible amounts of work in lightning turnaround times, and changes their mind constantly about what they want. Then, right when we’re about to execute it, they drop the whole thing entirely and refuse to move forward on it.

Now we’re downsizing, and my team is about to be very small. I finally told my supervisor that I can’t work on this project again, period. My supervisor told me that I will, period. I said that I didn’t have time and that our boss would have to do it, which my supervisor said they’d bring up, but I don’t have confidence anything will change.

How do I get out of this Groundhog Day? I’m great at my work and have excellent numbers, so I’m frustrated that the rolling deadline is always an excuse to drop work on me with no warning, but never a reason to listen to me about department planning. Can I just look my boss in the eye and say, “No, I’m not doing that project anymore”?

Some people can. Most people can’t.

If you’re very senior and/or highly valued, and you have a ton of internal political capital that you’re willing to spend, you might be able to refuse. It will use up a lot of capital, though, so you’d want to be confident you won’t want that capital for other things in the next year-ish.

Plus, if you can do this at all, you can only do it once — so you’d want to be confident that this is the hill you want to die on, and not a different conflict that might come up in the future.

And even if you are in a position to refuse, you wouldn’t do it with a flat “No, I won’t.” You’d need to have a conversation where you explain your concerns and why you feel strongly. Otherwise you’ll look like you have some significant misunderstandings about how employment works.

But if you have any doubt about whether “highly valued and a ton of internal capital to spend” applies to you, err on the side of assuming it doesn’t — because you can get fired if you’re wrong. (That’s especially true when your team appears to be having layoffs!)

You have other options here, though:

* You can decline to keep working awful hours each time your boss remembers this project. When it’s asked of you, you can say, “I’m able to do X and Y in that amount of time but not Z” and all the other strategies for unreasonable workloads here.

* You can talk to your boss about the fact that this keeps happening and the impact it’s having on you and your work, and ask to figure out ways to prevent it from continually unfolding in the same way.

* You can emotionally disengage. Yes, it’s frustrating that your boss keeps going through the same cycle with this project and won’t listen to you about planning better, but what if you decided that’s not your problem? Obviously it impacts you if you’re suddenly expected to work long hours unnecessarily, but if you push back on that per the first suggestion above, then what if after that you decided that you’re paid your salary either way and if they want to pay you to waste time on this exercise over and over (without lengthening your work hours), then so be it? There’s a point where having to do a lot of that sort of mental positioning can impact your overall fulfillment in your job, and if that happens then you’d need to decide whether you care to stay, knowing these are the terms — but a lot of people find that by emotionally disengaging, that point gets a lot further off.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 92 comments… read them below }

  1. PlainJane*

    This calls for some politics in how you handle it–instead of “I’m not doing X,” maybe say, “Right now, we have a deadline on A and B and those are taking all the regular hours–did you want us to go into time-and-a-half on X, or deprioritize one of the others?”

    But I’m curious about this project. Is it possible that it’s a project that your supervisor keeps getting mixed messages on from *her* supervisors, in which case she doesn’t have much choice about it, either.

    1. Letter_Writer*

      Hi, this is the Letter Writer! Thanks for this comment, and thanks Alison for this thoughtful answer.

      The upper management is kind of a secret box that most of us can’t see into, but my guess is that the answer to your question is yes. Parts of this org are in major flux right now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a top-down problem.

      1. Important Moi*

        I think that respecting the hierarchy is important too in this case.

        If this is a top-down problem, you aren’t going to be privy to all the pieces of the puzzle.

        1. Legal Beagle*

          I agree, but there’s not always “information you aren’t privy to which totally explains this” – sometimes it’s just poor management. It sounds like the project being picked up and put down repeatedly is wasting a lot of time and resources. (And upper management being a black box is a problem in itself, as evidenced by this letter.)

          1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

            Yes. Like my boss would ask how I was getting on with Project A, and I’d say I’d put it on stand-by because of finally getting Project B moving. Then he’d need to know all about Project B even though I hadn’t finished updating him on Project A (which needed some input from him).

      2. tangerineRose*

        Are you hourly or salaried? Being asked to work extra long hours with no extra pay is really awful.

  2. Alton Brown's Evil Twin*

    I’m having a hard time understanding the dynamics around a contract with no deadline, that gets periodically dusted off and furiously worked on, and then blocked from actual implementation. And has been around for at least a year.

    I’d want to ask my boss explicitly about the elephant in the room.

    1. Brooks Brothers Stan*

      My job has a few of those that are similar in regards to grants. Every few months a specific type of grant will become open for application again—and regardless of the fact we will never receive it just the process of applying for it looks good for reasons. So every few months we dust off all the old work, put a fresh coat of paint on it, and roll the boulder up the mountain again.

      The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill the board’s heart. One must imagine program directors happy

    2. Lord Gouldian Finch*

      I’m wondering if the issue is billable hours. It might be something where to keep the grant they need to have done X number of hours by Y date, but since it’s a low priority overall, what happens is someone keeps going “Oh crap we need to do 22.5 hours on the Xanadu project by Thursday or it will be taken away” but they don’t actually want to allocate the 100 hours or whatever it would actually require to “finish” the project.

    3. Lilyp*

      Yeah, having a frank conversation with your boss about why this project matters (Is it a pet project of a high-level stakeholder? An area your company is trying to build expertise or explore new applications? Something you do need to deliver by the end of the year even if there isn’t a specific deadline before then?) might get some interesting answers

    4. Malthusian Optimist*

      sounds like Federal Supply Schedule to me. looks complicated but it’s not, mgm’t kept cycling a new senior person into guiding it, so every few months I had to explain the whole mess and that I had completed every area I was authorized to enter. Some couldn’t get their heads around ‘no deadline’ others took that to mean ‘don’t bother’. others wanted to read the entire dictionary size document and return even more confused (most of it is just F.A.R and can be ignored). if they had simply said to me ‘yes you, you lowlife are in charge’, they’d have been on within a few months.

      but I was hourly so I didn’t much care.

  3. Quinalla*

    I have to deal with projects similar to this (not this ridiculous) where a client is paying us over and over to redesign a project because they keep changing their mind. I have re-framed this for myself as that if they want to pay me to design the same project ten times, it is their money to spend.

    I definitely get it though as it is can be super frustrating to see the same thing over and over and over. I would as Alison suggests just push back hard on the unreasonable hours and let the rest go. At this point, you know what will likely happen, so just reframe that it is going to happen again, if your boss wants to pay you to spin your wheels, as long as you aren’t working overtime on it, try and let it go.

    1. AdAgencyChick*

      “I have re-framed this for myself as that if they want to pay me to design the same project ten times, it is their money to spend.”

      Yup. I also tell myself and my direct reports “sometimes our product is happy clients.” So, sometimes you do a lot of work with nothing tangible to show for it, but the fact that you went on the ride with them makes them happy.

      But this always in the context of negotiating so that the new thing added to our plates means that something else gets temporarily or permanently moved off so that nobody’s overwhelmed by having to deal with the crazy request AND a full regular workload.

    2. Dust Bunny*

      We (I work for a nonprofit) had a patron who made a substantial donation if we would research a certain topic for him. It was literally something about which he could easily have found chapter and verse on Google (and we gently told him this). But he basically wanted to pay us to do it for him.

      It was ridiculous, and I definitely had other things to do, but whatever. Sure, dude, we will expensively Google that for you.

    3. Tired*

      I agree with all this! Learning how to divest emotionally in projects like this is one of the most valuable skills I’ve learned in my career as a designer. I usually care a lot about my work, but when I realize it’s going to be one of THOSE kinds of projects, I mentally flip the “give a crap” switch to Off and lower my expectations to the ground.

  4. Atalanta0jess*

    It sounds to me like you did refuse and your boss said “nu-uh, you are not in charge of that decision.” Given that….it seems like you’ll REALLY be pushing if you do it again.

    1. ANC*

      I totally agree. I had to go through this with a very early stage employee recently. We had to sit her down and say “this is part of the job we’re paying you for.” We are funded by about 25% government grant funding and yeah, they are beasts to complete and half the time they look promising and then you have a conversation with someone on the inside and you realize you’re not the best fit. Still, the work has to get done. In the end, it’s a numbers game.

    2. Granger*

      This! It definitely reads as though OP has ALREADY refused (attempted to) – it sounds like OP is wondering why it didn’t work or how to approach it differently (because the first attempt didn’t work) – ? If that’s true then the advice should be revised, right?

  5. Mel_05*

    Allison is 100% right about reframing things.

    I used to work in a job with a lot of projects that weren’t frustrating in themselves, but 80% of the work I did was -going- to be discarded because of the constantly changing parameters.

    It’s infuriating and of course it’s a terrible use of payroll.

    But, I reframed it in my head as “not my problem” and just took the changes as if they weren’t absurd and that would help me be chill about it.

    After a while that would wear off and I’d have to reframe again and of course the healthiest thing ended up being to leave. But, I was stuck there for a while, so for that time I just had to dial back how much I cared about projects being run well.

    1. Letter_Writer*

      Thank you for this! Can I ask how you handled the times when the chill wore off? I am a very unchill person, and I find the use of payroll hard to justify to myself, as you say.

      1. Forrest*

        This might sound daft but naming the (physical and/or digital) folder you keep it in something like “TBP” (That Bloody Project) can be helpful for me. Every time you see it, it’s just a low-level reinforcement that this is stupid, it’s always been stupid, you know it’s stupid and I know it’s stupid, but there should just some stupid stuff we have to do to get paid and that’s the way it is. It helps you approach it in a mildly cynical frame of mind, and hopefully stops the cynicism contaminating other projects.

        (And old boss of mine used to frame work like this as, “my grandad worked in the pit”—as in, being in a job where 85% of what you do is safe, meaningful and mostly-enjoyable is such an incredible gift and that makes it easier to just let the 15% wash over you.)

        1. Letter_Writer*

          The “worked in the pit” framing is something my old coworker used to say to me! Thank you, that’s a good reminder. And the TBP rename made me laugh.

          1. Artemesia*

            My father worked in the. mines to put himself through college and lost the tips of some of his fingers doing it; my mother worked 12 hour shifts in a hospital RN program to get her RN. My jobs were often frustrating, but nothing like that. And then my grandparents with grade school educations worked the fields or in my grandfather’s case moved around the country building stairs for large buildings — and then fished to feed the family when jobs tried up during the depression. So yeah — I had it easy.

        2. Sneaky Ninja for this one*

          ha! I have a folder called The Blues. It’s for a project that gives me the blues.

        3. Alex the Alchemist*

          Similarly, my mom said that when she worked for the DMV she listened to the Les Mis soundtrack on repeat. She hated every second of that job but at least she was reminded that revolution is possible haha.

          1. Elspeth Mcgillicuddy*

            I have a Irish hornpipe called “The Rights of Man” that is my ‘annoyed with work’ tune. No words and perfectly jaunty sounding, but I hum it to myself when I am extremely irritated. It helps.

      2. JR*

        This might work better earlier in one’s career, but when I had a project that had some similar frustrations (clients who kept changing their minds), I focused on the professional growth I was getting out of the project. To some extent, I didn’t care if the project ever got implemented – I was a consultant and that was outside of my scope, so it was just another experience that I was learning from. And the really frustrating projects make for the best answers to “tell me about a time when…” questions in interviews!

      3. Mel_05*

        Well, when the chill wore off I usually just got more and more irritated until I realized I needed to reset.

        I did notice that it usually happened after a period of things running better and then things would return to the norm and I was upset that no one could see the problem.

    2. NotAPirate*

      Seconding this! My boss has me doing some stuff that a high school summer student could do. It used to be infuriating. Now I just laugh at the fact that he’s paying my salary to do this task. Mentally that’s really helped me. He wasn’t going to see reason about it, and arguing about it just gave me the “we’re a team” pep talk on repeat. It’s hard not to care. Caring makes you a good worker. But just work on setting caring aside. I mentally check out when working on that task and just run through my grocery list in my head, or plot my weekend, or if I’m feeling sneaky I add a earbud and an audiobook. It’s almost a break now.

      1. Letter_Writer*

        Thank you, this comment made me feel like we work at the same place! It *is* hard not to care, and I’ll try to set it aside.

      2. Richard Hershberger*

        Yup. If someone wants me to be a vastly overpaid file clerk, who am I to complain?

    3. Junior Assistant Peon*

      Disengaging is the only way to stay sane in a situation like this. I got through a bad job by thinking to myself “At least I’m getting paid to do nothing all day” while job-hunting on the side. Someone who cares too much would have lost their mind at that company.

      This is also great for dealing with layoffs. My first layoff hurt much more than my second one because I cared much more about the company, and it felt almost like my parents had told me I’m out of the family and no longer welcome at holiday gatherings. My second one was much easier because I had picked up a healthy degree of cynicism and disengagement with age and experience.

    4. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Re the “not my problem” framing: the French have a wonderful expression for this “il ne faut pas être plus royaliste que le roi” (you mustn’t be more royalist than the king).

  6. LadyByTheLake*

    Or you just go the opposite direction (which is difficult because you already set yourself up by saying “no”). Cheerfully agree to work on the project but then just . . . don’t. When it comes up, apologize and explain what came ahead of it (if you know that those other things are higher priority). Proactively say things like “I wanted the team to spend time on Project WasteOfTime, but unfortunately, we had to do ProjectRealWork.” The problem is that you’ve already announced in a troubling way that you don’t want to do Project WasteOfTime, so now you can’t pretend to go along with it and ruefully regret when Gosh Darn, there’s just no time to get to it.

    1. Similarly Situated*

      This is my strategy! I wouldn’t suggest it here for the reasons you listed, but it does work if you do it sparingly.

    2. Happy Lurker*

      I utilized this a couple times in the last decade or so. It was ever so helpful. Some times I would just send the results of the last time I had worked on it. Boss didn’t notice it was 6 months out of date. Mostly, I just didn’t get to it in the face of more pressing work. Boss rarely asked for it multiple times. Maybe twice in one week, but by the next week would have forgotten all about it.
      It took years, but it finally resolved itself in the most mundane way. It went away. I almost waved goodbye, except it would have been an empty gesture since I wasn’t going to miss it.

      1. Artemesia*

        This is genius — spend 2 hours editing the old crap and send it off if you possibly can.

    3. Arctic*

      Yeah, this has to be used sparingly and you have to have an overall good reputation. But it definitely works when used correctly. I’ve done this several times (over the course of nearly 10 years not, like, months.)

    4. ANC*

      Yeah, noooooo! You do need to work on what you say you’re going to. This person doesn’t sound like a manager level so is not capable of making that decision. That would be a serious overstep and could be grounds for a note in her file.

      1. LadyByTheLake*

        It has to be used strategically and sparingly and ONLY if there is so much real work that doing Project WasteOfTime genuinely isn’t possible/feasible. You can’t do this and then sit around twiddling your thumbs or doing work that is less important. I agree that if the boss moves other work and prioritizes ProjectWasteOfTime, then it is necessary to do ProjectWasteOfTime. But when there just is not time to do ProjectWasteOfTime, then regretting not getting to it, while agreeing on the face of it to do it, often works.

        I say this as a person nearing retirement after a stellar career — used carefully in the right situations, this strategy has branded me a “team player” without my having to actually waste my time on various Projects WasteOfTime.

  7. juliebulie*

    I have spent hours – weeks – months (and when you add it all up, years) on projects that turned out to be bad ideas, should have been low priority, or which got canceled shortly before they would have been finished. It’s not how I would choose to spend my time, but it’s not my time – it’s theirs. Even if I could say “no” every time I knew that a project was a waste of time, I might end up with nothing to do.

    What shocks me is how seldom heads roll over the wasted time. (Actually there’s really only one head to blame, but this has been going on for years.) It’s not just me working on these projects. There’s a whole team. We could have been working on something profitable instead. (And these aren’t client-specific projects, either. It’s all senior management.) That is what is so frustrating.

  8. dealing with dragons*

    There’s limited time in your life to do work, and sometimes you have to get that across. No is a huge word, and to me from the letter it doesn’t seem like LW is actually saying No in the final sense.

    I say “no” to my manager all the time, but it’s more like “you’ve given me 8 projects to work on simultaneously. we will comfortably be able to complete 5 in the next quarter. let me know which ones are the highest priority.” Technically, I’m saying “no” to doing three projects, but it’s with the idea of getting a realistic amount of work done. Which is really how you have to frame it. I don’t want to lie to my manager so that he has to tell his manager et al. that things will get done which won’t. We want to have a realistic conversation about what teams can and cannot deliver so that we can let the powers that be decide which is the most important to get done.

    So that is how I would lay this predicament out. Especially if you can come up with previous communications where you’ve ramped up and then had to stop. Context switching is killer! I have most definitely told my manager “no” to switching when we’re close to completing a project. The point is to try to never say “no”, always say “no, but….”

    1. asfsdfsdfsd*

      I agree with this approach. discuss priority with your manager, and whats currently on your plate. lay out the timeline and resources required for everything on your plate, and it will be more clear to your manager where re-prioritization may be necessary (taking something “off the plate”).

      I had this happen with a project I had for a year that was a failure, then was passed to a coworker for a year, and tried to be passed back to me. It was a dud and a failure – I have the relationship with my manager where I can say honestly this project is not viable with our resources. turns out he had pressure from further up to keep working on it and didnt want us on it either. we just had too many high-priority projects and this one never got worked on and is FINALLY actually dead.

      I have learned to never assume intent. Just share the facts and let the manager decide how to prioritize.

    2. Junger*

      This. Don’t work directly against your manager like that if at all possible. It puts you in direct conflict, and they have the power to override or fire you.

      Just work with them as much as you can reasonably do. If the balls start dropping, catch whatever you can at your normal workload and let the rest fall wherever they may. You don’t overwork yourself, and you don’t have to fight your boss.

    3. tangerineRose*

      “you’ve given me 8 projects to work on simultaneously. we will comfortably be able to complete 5 in the next quarter. let me know which ones are the highest priority.”

      I’ve used this, and I don’t think of it so much as saying “no” as much as prioritizing realistically. A good manager will appreciate this.

      1. Granger*

        Yes! It’s a polite “helpful” reminder of what you’re balancing – not just for OP’s benefit, but for the boss too – it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of everything even with the best intentions. Surely the never-ending project can’t be that high of a priority if it frequently gets re-shelved?!

    4. Lilyp*

      It sounds like deadlines are important in your real/normal work so I’d couch this in terms of risk to other projects’ deadlines as much as possible — “I can only make room for AnnoyingProject if we push back the deadline for ImportantProject by two weeks” or “If I take this on before the end of the month we’ll likely miss the NormalGrant application deadline, is that something we’re willing to miss out on?” could have more of an impact.

    5. Eukomos*

      With my last manager there were a lot of conversations that went “I can do that, but I’m concerned it will prevent me from hitting my deadlines on Primary Project.” She eventually realized that was just a very long way to say no, but she did listen when I pulled that one out, and she’s not one of nature’s listeners.

  9. Joielle*

    This is VERY familiar to me and is ultimately one of the major reasons I left my last job. If it had just been re-doing versions of the same project over and over when we all knew it was likely to go nowhere, that would have been one thing – irritating, but if that’s what you want to pay me to do then so be it. But we were also working nightmare hours on these ultimately useless projects, which is what drove me to leave after a few years. If I’m going to work 18 hour days for weeks at a time, I’d like it to be for a good reason, TYVM.

    Unfortunately, my best advice is to look for a new job because in my personal experience, it’s just going to get more irritating the more times you have to do it.

  10. Scarlet*

    Just a thought, and this may not apply, but OP I wonder if this is one of those things where you could just SAY you’re going to do ABCD on the project and then just.. not? But kind of pretend that you are? Would your bosses find out?

    Sometimes this strategy works to just appease the boss or whoever is in charge, to look agreeable… in those cases usually the boss just forgets about the project after a period of time and there is no follow up. Is that an option for you?

    1. Letter_Writer*

      Unfortunately, no — it would have to be in the form of what LadyBytheLake and Similarly Situated suggest above, and I agree with their take that my previous attempts to change things have made that tactic unworkable now.

      1. Artemesia*

        This is why editing old material in ways that make it new (changing dates for one thing) and if appropriate adding a thing or two that has come up recently, might be a reasonable approach. When writing hopeless grants I was more likely to re-use old grant material than when writing grants we really had a good shot at which got the intensive work. I am willing to work late and weekends on something that might make a difference, but not for something we know is a waste of effort.

  11. Former call centre worker*

    I think the emotional disengagement one is a good suggestion (after raising the issues etc). I’ve had various pieces of work that had to be largely redone multiple times as priorities changed, and so long as my boss understands what I can do within my hours (or will agree overtime/TOIL), it’s fine. It doesn’t mean not caring about your work, just focusing on what you’ve been asked to do.

    Some big picture understanding of your boss’s priorities with the project would also help I think, as from their point of view there might be reasons for the changes. Or maybe there aren’t reasons, and your boss is just chaotic, and then you can decide whether you want to still work there or not.

  12. Letter_Writer*

    What a kind and lovely comments section this is! I have to run off, but thank you everyone here for these helpful comments, and thank you again Alison for running this letter.

  13. nnn*

    Building on Alison’s answer, another thing you could do is name your price. By which I don’t mean money, but rather what would it take to actually do the project? What time, resources, and conditions would you actually need?

    Examples: “We’d need to definitively nail down the parameters before we start any work, so the project doesn’t keep changing like in the past.”

    “It would take 6 months to meet the stated parameters. Within the proposed two-week deadline, we can do A and B.”

    “If we’re going to prioritize this project, we’d need to postpone X and Y.”

    “We’d need to make sure everyone has a dual monitor setup in their home office, purchase 47 more boxes of widgets, and cancel the weekly zoom meeting.”

    The advantage of this approach is you aren’t saying no. You are behaving exactly like a person who agrees to do the project and is committed to doing the project by diligently working to create success conditions from the outset. (You could even make a big showy show of wanting to Get It Right This Time since the project has been cancelled so many times in the past.)

    The disadvantage is you might end up having to do the project.

    1. NYWeasel*

      Yes, we call this approach “What needs to be true”. It’s very useful for issues with unreasonable asks flowing downwards bc you aren’t saying no. Your telling them what obstacles they need to remove for you.

    2. mf*

      Yes, I use this approach all the time. Most of the time, I end up having to do the project but at the very least, I’m absolved of having to worry about the consequence. If other projects get delayed, well, I told you so!

  14. drpuma*

    In addition to the excellent suggestions around proactive time management above, I wonder if it would help to do a brief recap for your boss the next time this project comes up. I’m thinking something along the lines of, “So far we’ve mocked this up for scenarios where we shave the llamas, give them perms, or dye their hair blue. Are we able to build on any of that work? Since none of those plans have made it to the farm, what can we do differently this time?” For me it helps to know I was clear about where I stand and am being asked to do ridiculous work anyway, versus sitting and stewing about my perspective not being taken into consideration. A coworker uses the term “disagree and commit.”

  15. Tex*

    Re-frame it in your mind as a ‘practice project’ and use it as a guinea pig to try out new ideas. Test automated spreadsheets, start a new work process, investigate new vendors, learn a new program or skill. If you can walk away with something tangible (certification) or useful skills for your regular projects, it’s not a waste of effort. There are not many times in working life that one is handed a low stakes, experimental environment.

  16. GreenDoor*

    Not sure if this applies to your situation, but I have a similar one. What I do are all the prep steps that don’t require much time and brainpower. Then I shift it back to the boss. Something like this, “Boss, I’ve created the template, pulled the relevant articles, and looked up all the building codes. I’ve gotten assurance from Secretary that we can use Room 200 whenever we’re ready to begin and Bob has agreed to take over my TPS reporting to free up my time. Plesae let me know when I should begin.” Nine times out of 10, I’m told to “just hold off for now” and never actually have to start the heavy part of the work. But I still come out smelling like a rose because I showed I was planning ahead, being responsive, and I was poised to get started.

    1. Forrest*

      Oh god, everything you’ve described is the kind of faffy detailed stuff that I HATE and find so much harder than the “real work” stuff!

      1. Green Door*

        Ahh….but you do the fluff once and it’s done. And it sits ready. Every time I’m told we’re going to finally start this project, I pull out my same design, my same research material, and my notes. Then I wait….we never begin…and I just shelve them until next time. I only expended the effort once – two years ago. It’s beautiful.

  17. I'm super anonymous because...*

    This strikes a cord with me. I was newish to the whole tenure track committee work thing. Committees are assigned by senior administrators and department chairs. There is no possibility of “no.” Huge amount of work done by individuals on super short sudden deadlines. Evenings and weekends. Position papers written and reviewed to the finest minute word-smithing. Many, many meetings refining recommendations. A time suck. Nothing happens. Radio silence. Sudden revival of interest by the powers that be in the VERY IMPORTANT work of the committee. Rinse and repeat.
    What I have learned. Not to argue. Not to protest. Not to promise to meet deadline. Not to actually do anything.

    1. Artemesia*

      And what men on tenure track do is negotiate no committee work during the tenure run up, or low effort on committees during this period and I have watched them do it successfully where young women often feel they must be nice and must do what they are told and then get criticized for wasting time on unproductive committee work or teaching instead of focusing on their research. There is no significant reward for committee work — or for good teaching. You can get penalized for terrible teaching but it is an area where good enough there works if you are good in academic productivity –publications, grants, research. I couldn’t do X because of grant deadlines in my research works better than churning out reports for the damn diversity committee that is an anchor around the necks of women and minorities in academia.

      1. Super anonymous academic*

        Oh Artemesia, how did you guess it was an equity and inclusion committee that I was serving on? Yes, I am a woman. The good news is that I had an amazing professor emeritus who was one of the first of her gender on the faculty. She gave me great advice in regards to publication and research and how to allocate my time. I went up early for tenure and 3 years later went up for and promoted to Full despite opposition that it was “too soon.” Now I DO say no. Someone recently used the phrase “I am at capacity.” I have taken it for my own.

  18. Senor Montoya*

    How hard do you actually have to work on this project? Not just in terms of time (other commenters have good ideas on that), but in terms of effort and excellence?

    –Do you need to make it fabulous? or can you do a reasonable minimum?
    — Maybe do the minimum and wait for the boss to ask for more.
    –Does the boss ever ask for more?? how much more?
    –Does it have to be substantially different from previous iterations? Can you re-use work you’ve done before on this project?

  19. Red5*

    I’ve only ever once flat-out refused to do a project. In a previous job, each section was required to provide one person for the party planning team for two annual get-togethers. I was assigned my first year as a newbie to both teams, then my second year for one while another woman was assigned for the second. In the third year, my boss tried to assign me again, and I told him flat out I wasn’t going to do it again until the men in the office all took their turn. He joked with me that he could put it in my performance objectives and make me do it. I responded that he could go right ahead and put it in my performance objectives but he’d be wasting his time because I would still refuse to do it and then he’d have to write me up.

    I was not assigned to party planning again at that job.

    Alison is right that, if you choose to refuse it, it needs to be the hill you’re willing to die on, and you may have to expend a LOT of political capitol to do so.

  20. WindmillArms*

    Once I asked my dad how he could be so chipper on the phone with his clients, who called ta all hours, with all manner of dumb questions. He said “it’s al billable hours.” I’ve used that phrase myself many times doing this kind of work where you know for a fact there is no point, and nothing useful will come of the work. If I’m being paid the same either way, I’ll happily do the most pointless and repetitive tasks. I said this to myself (and sometimes others) when I was an employee, but it’s even more true now that I freelance. Sure, annoying client, I’ll take another block of work even though it’ll never be used! It has helped my attitude about wasted time a lot.

    1. tangerineRose*

      Sometimes I think about the fast food job I had when I was in college and realize that I’m now being paid more, don’t smell like french fries, and am treated better. It helps when I have something to do that’s a pain.

      1. Quill*

        I don’t smell like dead pigs anymore and my feet don’t hurt nearly as much.

        And compared to my former boss, state bureaucracies are a dream to work with.

  21. buzzbuzzbeepbeep*

    These recommended techniques that Alison and the commenters gave are also excellent in combating micromanagers. Don’t focus on all the parts of the big useless project, simply knock off the low-hanging fruit and present it on a platter. Micromanagers are going to change everything you present anyway, so not investing much time, energy, and emotion into a project is a good way to protect your sanity. I highly recommend pointing out the obstacles in a “I need X before proceeding” way to micromanagers. It’s an effective way to divert their attention off of you and onto whatever that obstacle is. Also, “faking it till you make it” helps micromanagers feel like you have taken their meticulous direction to heart when actually you are just doing empty motions that have a lot of face-value.

    Excellent advice to be given by all!

  22. Tupac Coachella*

    I’ve personally found the “emotionally disengage” suggestion very helpful. I tend to care a lot about my work-that’s why I’m good at it- and would find this situation positively maddening. I left a job partially because we had lots of “urgent,” time consuming initiatives that promptly got tossed aside for the next trend. At least in the short term, though, deciding to be selective on what to care about gives a lot of perspective. I can say “X and Y impact the people I serve, and I want to do them well. Z is pointless, but I can do it if the people who write the check want to waste their time.” *Their* time, not *my* time. I sold them my time, if they want to squander it on Z, that’s their business. I can warn them that they’d get more bang for their buck if they didn’t clutter up my project list, but ultimately it’s their circus.

    I do think trying to figure out what’s going on with this project and if there’s a way to make it go away permanently is necessary for a long term fix, but if the answer is “Z is a thing, not gonna change,” lack of emotional attachment makes it easier to accept the cycle and find a way to get things done anyway until Z gets pushed back, again.

  23. Shirley Keeldar*

    My sympathies, OP, I got one of those projects once. It was a time suck, never going to be prestigious or profitable or pleasant, and nobody wanted it. It bounced from desk to desk as the higher ups tried to find somebody who would actually do it.

    I, um, quit. But that may not be the path you want to take.

    (No, it was’t about the project from heck. But it was one of the things that has always made me very glad I left.)

  24. DevilMayCare*

    Another approach may not “feel” very good, but can be quite effective in these kinds of situations. if you can find ways of dumping massive amounts of work back on your boss (think “I’m not at the level to make the decision among these five options; I’m going to send you an email so we have documentation, because this contract looks like it could come back on us. Could you review these five options please, and document your thoughts with supporting evidence, because I can’t go forward without it.”)

    If you can keep dumping stuff back on him, and do it in a way that doesn’t harm you (or that can hang him up with *his* boss), there is a really good chance that he’ll jump at an opportunity to make it go away. If you can tie him in knots with analysis paralysis, and especially if you can frame the problems in a way that is your boss’s fault (like getting it in front of his/her boss with you requesting information that never comes)? You may well be able to get rid of this forever.

    I’ve had experience with DoD/military contracting, and I’ve used this approach more than once to good effect to kill or get away from WOMBAT projects (Waste of Money Brains and Time) like this. It CAN come back on you, but if you really don’t want to have anything to do with this, you might be able to thread the needle.

  25. NW Mossy*

    One thing that helps in fighting zombie work is to look back at prior instances and play coroner – why did it die before? There’s usually at least a few contributing factors to its demise, and reminding others of them can be an effective tool. If you can’t stop its reanimation, you may at least sidestep much of the work in proving it’s a rotting corpse.

    As an example, about every 6-9 months someone at my organization revives Bright Idea X. I personally have been around long enough to have attended many exploratory meetings about BIX, where we are very excited about how great it will be in the early minutes. Then, either I or someone else who’s seen this one will ask “So, how are we going to handle Intractable Issue Y?” IIY has been studied exhaustively, and as the name suggests, it is a gigantic roadblock that can only be removed by triggering an eye-watering expense. The latest advocate for BIX will rapidly decide that he doesn’t like BIX enough to deal with that, so he will quietly slip away and rebury BIX like a dog bone for some other colleague to find.

    I’ve repeated these steps at least 4 times that I can think of, and each time, BIX dies a little faster.

    1. Important Moi*

      Ah yes! I am familiar with IIY and how it gets repeatedly discovered for the “first time” and then gets quietly reburied. I used to let it upset me.

      1. Artemesia*

        I know teachers who finally retired when bright idea X that they first encountered and implemented in 1965, and in 1975 and in 1988 and in 1995 and in 2003 and in 2011 came around again destined to require the same huge amount of ‘training’ and mastering of new vocabulary and steps for the SON (same old nonsense). Being around people chirping about how transformative the SOS is can only be borne so many times and finally one has had enough. Because my career changed dramatically several times, I had the pleasure of seeing the SOS reconfigured and seen as revolutionary and brilliant across different domains. At least I was always great at it having thrown myself into it the first time it came by. And yes the ones that won’t work because of IIY continue to falter on implementation all the bright enthusiastic chirping and cheerleading and color coded charts nothwithstanding.

    2. Willis*

      Yes, this!! Some of this does depend on how much standing the OP has with their boss, but when I’ve had boomerang projects like this, I think it helps to be critical about how new work is going to be different or solve whatever roadblock stopped it last time.

      Alternatively, I’ve had a couple internal project that got stuck at implementation because the person who would be implementing them was basically looking for an easy answer and didn’t wanted to do the work. When those got revived, I’d just bring up the same work I did before and let them languish on that person’s desk again.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      Oh this is my fav. I can so vouch for this. See, the trick is that in a short bit no one remembers why the project came to a screeching halt. The thing to do here is to BE that person who remembers why the project stalled.

      Boss: Okay, NSNR, it’s time to drag out Dreaded X and work on it.
      Me: Okay, great! Let’s get it out of here for once and for all. [This comment alone causes the boss to have a headache. ] The last time we worked on this we needed Y component that cost $5k. I have not seen Y arrive yet, how’s that coming along?
      Boss: [Groaning and muttering to self. I return to my planned day.]

      You can also go with:
      “Clear my calendar for me and I will knock this right out for ya! We will be done with it for once and for all, won’t that be GREAT?”

      I suspect the boss knows that you don’t want to see this project for the rest of your days. In that case you will have to do a credible turnaround.
      Boss: You are going to finish Dreaded X now.
      You: You know, boss, I thought about what you said before. I do realize it’s just going to hang around here until someone steps up to the plate and does it. I decided that I want to be that person who gets us off the hook for this thing for once and for all.

      Here the idea is instead of avoiding it, you constantly remind the boss about how excited you are to finish it for once and for all. It’s a reverse physiology sort of thing. You can get out of these things quicker than if you argue the point and burn up all kinds of capital. OR you can actually finish the thing and then they “owe” you, i.e. you just got some more capital.

      I was pretty good at projecting up coming needs. So I made sure I would tell the boss, “By Thursday I will need that $5k component. I will be ready for it.” And I would continue like this, the following week, I would be in the office saying, “By Wednesday we will be ready for Z reports.” I was that annoying person who knew and accurately forecasted upcoming needs.

  26. Roeslein*

    I actually sort of disagree on this one. I’m a high-performing management consultant at a boutique firm. I have a pretty niche skill set so I’m not at risk of being fired, but if I accepted every project my bosses try to give me, I would permanently have 12 ongoing client projects (many of them uninteresting) and not be able to do run any of them properly (which reflects badly on me) while the company doesn’t bother to hire the staff they need and/or decline projects because the owners take for granted that they can just dump more work on me. After I ended up with an impossible workload a couple of times, my mentor (who runs another company) convinced me to start pushing back on some of the low-value work, and now I can produce quality work again! Still working the odd weekend but not *every* weekend. Knowing when to say no is an important skill to protect yourself and your career prospects, and women especially tend to be reluctant to do so.

    1. Strictly Speaking*

      Is there an ethical justification for pushing back? I’m stuck on the ethical reasoning that if you’re being paid to work and follow orders, it’s unethical to say no/refuse a project assigned to you.

  27. AdPerson*

    I had this conversation with my boss about 6-7 months ago because I did not want to run ad campaigns for Trump. I laid out my concerns with my boss and they were very receptive to it thankfully. My company mostly runs ads for businesses but we also do political campaigns. I brought it up well before I knew we would start getting ads from PACs and before it would become a big “in the moment” refusal since most of our work is setting up campaigns ASAP. While other people at my company will set those up, I was able to get my company to add a “moral objection” opt out for anything we don’t feel we can ethically work on.

    Obviously I would prefer that we not run ads at all for him but since I am not an executive or a salesperson at my company, I don’t have a lot of say there. Also it would be very difficult in this year especially for people to turn down money since the marketing industry was hit pretty hard at the start of covid. We finally got our first Trump campaign this week and I’m glad to say my boss held to our agreement.

    If I hadn’t worked at the company for several years and if I wasn’t in a management position, I don’t feel that I would have had the political capital to have this conversation and I’m very glad that my company extended the moral opt out to our whole company.

  28. looking ahead*

    You have received some good advice on how to handle the situation. At the end of the day, you should know that insubordination is a an offense that can get you fired (this is especially true in right to work states). This pretty much means you can lose your job if you refuse to do the work you are assigned. That’s why there are so many cautious ways of addressing this situation – and not head on like you attempted to do. That said, a lot of folks find creative ways of handling these type of things.

    1. Mr. Obstinate*

      *at-will employment states
      Right to Work refers to whether union membership can be required.

  29. IV*

    Sometimes the best way to resolve this sort of thing is is to step up and own it. Which sounds crazy, but hear me out.

    What if instead of letting this thing thump into your lap, again, and be crazy at some inconvenient time, you approach it like: “Hey, this thing never seems to land anywhere and it just lingers and spirals and causes everyone stress. Do we want to actually accomplish thing or it this someone upstairs just flailing around and we can kind of let it roll? Because if we do want to actually to this, I have some ideas for defining and documenting requirements so they don’t change AGAIN and maybe we can break the work down into bits that we can work on between other deadline driven stuff. And I’d be happy to give (annoying exec) status updates so they know this is going someplace at a steady pace.” Then you have the boss sign off on the requirements, whip them up a nice spreadsheet, and meet a couple of milestones.

    It’s basically a spin off of the technique where you volunteer to take notes in meetings because you can absolutely guide the outcome of the meeting by how you take notes.

    Just be careful because this is how project managers are made.

  30. MamaBear*

    My supervisor, who has a black belt in dealing with impossible people, has a strategy for this sort of situation. She writes painstakingly exact descriptions of what time is needed for each step, what the consequences will be for other projects, what resources would be needed to make the deadlines, what deadlines other players in the project would have to abide by in order to make it work, and then emails these to the person making the demands, leaving them the final question of what to do (sometimes, which priority she should sacrifice in order to make it possible to do X; in other cases, whether they are prepared to provide the support to make it possible to do X on time). They often fold. When they don’t, she doesn’t complain openly about it & digs in and does her best, but she does get enough wins out of it that I’m trying to figure out how to do what she does.

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