Author Robert Heinlein coined the acronym TANSTAAFL, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
I’m a fan of TANSTAAFP as well — there ain’t no such thing as a free puppy.
Free HBO and Showtime. (For three months. Then they’re very expensive.)
Free HD DVR. (You don’t have to buy it… because… you lease it. For $6 a month. I’m not quite sure how even via puffery that’s “free.” And even then it’s not included with the promotionally priced offer highlighted on the mailer.)
Free installation. (Okay, that part appears to be free.)
Free Blockbuster Home. (Lowest tier, one disc at a time, for three months. Then it’s $10 per month.)
Free local channels, too. Except ABC.1
At least they point out that the puppy is not included.
Anyway, the point is TANSTAAFP.2
Puppies can be extremely rewarding. They offer love, warmth, joy, and occasional mastication of shoes and other objects you might have preferred intact. But they do require an ongoing investment — food, care, time.
Everything is a trade-off. If you accept the free puppy, you’ll find your Inigo Montoya moment quickly. (“You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”)
I teach in my classes that if someone offers you an additional task, a legitimate response includes some variant of “What should I not do instead?” More importantly, as a (project) manager assigning a task, you should be prepared for and indeed encourage this response. Both the task-giver and the task-receiver need to understand project priorities the same way.
I used to encourage my teams to ask this question directly and bluntly of me. That said, I strongly suggest that if you’re having the conversation with a manager who hasn’t been through my classes or indicated in some other way they’re expecting the question, you phrase the question very tactfully and carefully, even with a significant amount of circumlocution. Talk about help setting priorities, for example. Let the manager come to the realization that she just gave you a task that’s not nearly as important as the other five things she has you working on.
And as I would tell my teams, sometimes the answer is “I’ll take that other thing off your plate.” Sometimes the answer is “Let’s cut back the time (or level of effort / depth / ‘quality’) on a few of these tasks to make room for the new item.” Sometimes the answer is “Oops, this isn’t as important as the other stuff you’re doing; I’ll give it to someone else.” And sometimes the answer is “Sorry, but somehow we’ve got to get to it all.” I hated to give that answer, but occasionally it happens. Your job as a manager is to make sure it doesn’t happen as a matter of course, that it’s not the first answer or your only answer.
Because there ain’t no such thing as a free puppy.