“Can” versus “Should”

I’m sure you’ve heard this question before, in both personal and professional contexts: “Can you do this?” And the answer, most of the time, is obvious. It is a question as to capability (“Do you have the skills to do this?”) and capacity (“Do you have the time and/or the willingness to do this?”)


Of course, as to capability, if someone in a professional context asks you the question and you need to admit you are not capable of doing that specific task, perhaps you are not in the right place. So this should, in a normal context, be a pretty much redundant question. The fact you are there, in the position you are, should mean that you are capable.


As to capacity, or whether or not you have the time and/or the willingness to do the tasks … that’s is a more difficult one. One that a lot of people answer based on their calendars and based on the person asking the question. If their calendar allows and/or they consider the person asking the question as important for their future, they are more likely to say yes. This is understandable. This is also completely the wrong way to approach it. Let’s examine why.

Closer or not to you objectives

The question should not be “Can you do it?”, but rather “Should you do it?” And should is based on whether or not that task, when compared to a lot of other tasks which are available to you, is the best possible use of your time in order to achieve the objectives.

Now, that theoretically makes a lot of sense. But here’s the rub … there are not necessarily clearly stated, jointly shared and well understood objectives. Rather, we are in a “run” mode where we execute, without actually wondering whether this is the best possible thing we can do with our time.

You owe it to your employer and yourself to think about this

You may think that asking that question, in the face of a question of a superior, is almost like slapping her or him in the face. But think about this a bit further, and you will understand this is your task, your responsibility, rather than some act of revolution.

Your employer, usually also the employer of your boss, is paying you money for work. Quite often that work is defined as a set number of hours that you will be dedicating to the work for your employer.

Now, imagine that you would do a task but not the most relevant, the most important task. In essence, what you are doing is not delivering your best possible value. In reality, this often means that you do the task and then all the rest that you need to do. But there you are then cheating yourself. Because by working more, you are actually reducing the effective value of the hours you work for your boss. You work more for the same pay, hence your pay per hour is lower.

So doing the “can you do this?” task without at least questioning whether it is the task you should do is cheating both your employer and yourself.

How to make this operational

So how best to approach this? Well, in the best of all possible worlds, your boss is a coach. A coach will not tell you what to do, she or he will assist you in discovering what you should be doing. Ideally, the reference here is a clear set of objectives that you can discuss in order to better understand how to operationalise them.

In case there are no objectives, perhaps the first thing you should do is to determine some that makes sense for the context you are working in. If you want to know what tools could help you with that, I suggest you dig into Getting Results the Agile Way by J.D. Meier. You can also consult that book for free on his website.

But what if your boss is not open to this? Well, most people, even the ones afraid of change, eventually come around if they see that you act as a mature, independent, focused, high performing individual. If they don’t, well, perhaps you are in the wrong place. But let’s be clear, you first need to do the work, you should invest in bringing your boss around.


The point of all of this is that executing mindlessly makes less and less sense. There will always be a next task. The question is: is this the most relevant task that you, unique you, could be doing right now.