A client of mine said she is always too busy with other peoples’ requests and she struggles to complete her own work. Her manager advised her to say “no” more often. But she doesn’t know how because helping others and being useful is a high value to her. As she and I looked into it, few scenarios came up.
a. Assuming “No” will Hurt Relationships
“I know I am already busy, but if I say “No” I will hurt this person. For damage control, maybe I will make time by being more efficient, by canceling the coffee with my friend or skipping my exercise.”
What is the underlying assumption when you say “saying no will hurt someone”? Common ones: “The requester has no other option”, “He/she is not capable enough to hear a ‘no’”, “Saying no is rude”, “If I say no, I will no longer be needed”. When you always say yes, how strong are they? What would be a polite way to say no to the current request so you don’t over commit?
If you are a “yes” addict, practice pausing (take a breath) and buy time (say something like “let me get back to you”). It would require some intentional practice though. This above-mentioned client made significant progress in just a few weeks. For deeper work on this tendency, read Katherine’s Time Management Dilemma for some ideas.
b. Not Enough Data about Your Availability
“I don’t exactly know whether I am totally busy or not. Maybe I will have time on one of the weekends. Why say “no” when I want to do this.”
Most likely you don’t use a calendar for time allocation and you don’t necessarily account for personal or social time. You could be over-committing and under-delivering.
How do you see time? Think about a metaphor, for example: Is this a free-flowing stream? Is this a space bounded by walls? What is the cost you are paying now by over-committing and under-delivering? What does your “Yes” mean – “Sure (would be nice to do it)” OR “I am committing to this” (and keep your word)?
To get an idea for how to say a strong yes, read this post: Why Do I Do It? 3 Steps to Clarify Your Commitments.
c. Assuming Activity to be same as Productivity (Busy is Good)
“As long as I am busy I am good”.
This might be a mask for avoiding deep, focused work by catering to the requests that are relatively easier to do. Maybe you are not motivated with the work that is assigned to you and you are finding excuses to keep yourself busy. Our brain avoids ambiguous work that requires focus. According to the book, Your Brain at Work, the executive center of our brain (PFC) can only focus on one thing at a time. If there are multiple things, it has to be much simpler, and even then it cannot be more than three or four. When we have too many things to focus, it ends up overloading the PFC, making us even less effective.
In an interview, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett emphasized the importance of protecting our time and using it for deep thinking. I wrote more elaborately in this article – Want to Take Your Career to the Next Level? Manage Your Attention Wisely.
Even though “Saying No” and “creating boundaries” have become buzzwords, each of us has our unique reasons for a habitual yes. Identifying the root cause can help address them. As a recovering “yes” addict I can say, avoiding deep work (#c above) caused me to default to yes. What is yours?