It seems that everyone these days is “leaning in.” The new normal is to extoll how busy we are. Social and family obligations go by the wayside as we accept “more” responsibility in our professional lives. Climbing our ladders is work that requires, well…work. And we know that in order to get another rung up we need to add more skills, do more things, and say “yes” more often (I’m looking at you Shonda Rhimes).
But often that relentless quest for “more” has us giving quite a lot of effort for very little reward. Just as multi-tasking leads to less effective output, so does our striving to accept any and all tasks lead to a lessening of quality in our work. When we try to do too much we become burnt out, stressed, frustrated, snappy and above all: resentful. We find ourselves giving our happy friends and co-workers supreme side-eye, annoyed because we have so much to do.
Saying “no” to some of these demands can lighten the load quite a bit, maybe even contributing to overall happiness. Here’s how to lean back, without giving up:
Be honest, how many fires are you putting out in a day? How many crazy-urgent things pop up in your email that you have to handle right NOW? It’s difficult when a manager or co-worker comes to us with something that seems to need our attention in that very moment, but you have to assess where that matter falls in the list of things you have to do for the day, including what you’re working on currently. (Side note: You are keeping a list of what needs to be done for the day, right? Most important things on it first? If not, start immediately.)
Once you’ve stepped away from a project that you’re working on to extinguish a situation, it is going to take you a long time to get back into the groove. Ask yourself, does this need my attention right now or can this wait? Saying “no” to disturbing your groove gives you a better chance of successful completion. Chances are that when you prioritize your tasks in this way, letting yourself move in the rhythm of your own particular work flow, things will settle around you. You’ll be able to handle things in your own time, and not stress out trying to juggle a million things at once.
Use your own (reasonable) time-frame
So you have your list and you’re swallowing your biggest frogs first. Once you’ve decided that the new task/assignment/project being presented can wait till later, you need to give it a timeframe. This accomplishes two purposes. First, you can now add this new item to your list in the corresponding order that it can be handled. Second, and most importantly, it sets the tone for how the project can be handled and establishes your boundaries.
Let’s look at that second point a little more closely. Often when we are not saying “no” it is because we have not set our own boundaries. We let other people’s problems and emergencies run our day because it feels good to be needed or because we think that dropping everything is the best way we can show that we care. Boundaries are one of the best ways to establish a healthy flow to your work, to say, “What I’m doing matters a great deal to me.”
Go back to your list and communicate where this new task falls on your agenda. Be transparent with the requestor about when you can reasonably get to it. “I’d be happy to help, Sonya, but I’ve got three other things I have to finish today. Can this wait until tomorrow morning? I should be able to devote a lot more attention to it then.” Setting a time-frame gives you authority over the situation and allows the requestor to decide if they need to ask someone else.
Will there be times where Sonya simply cannot wait until tomorrow morning? Absolutely. Even though you may be loving your new found (or just newly expressed) boundaries, you will have to learn when to fight the good fight and when to live to fight another day. When you’re running a project or the word comes down from the head of your department, it may be necessary that what they need takes precedence over your current workload. Don’t rush off without giving some thought to your duties, however.
Will someone else’s project be delayed because of the interruption? Do you have client meetings to attend? You may need to tell them “no” so that you can devote your attention elsewhere. Communicate with anyone who will be waiting on you that you’ll need to establish a new time-frame for completion (you should be a pro at this now) and you’ll get back to them as soon as you can. Now you’ll have a little breathing room when you finish helping Sonya and your other obligations won’t have to suffer.
Say “No” to drowning
It isn’t any fun to work with a martyr. You know the type: up to their eyeballs in work, hasn’t taken a personal day in months, toiling away at a bunch of urgent tasks until long after everyone else leaves for the day, and worst: isn’t afraid to let anyone who asks a simple, “How are you?” If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s you.
Some of us love to play the martyr because we think it means that we’re important enough to be relied on so heavily. We take pride in knowing that our jobs are important and no one else can do it like us. Drowning in our work, though, makes us less effective and burns us out. And if you are in it for the long climb up, you’ll need to preserve your strength.
Don’t be afraid to say “no” to being over your head by saying, “yes” to help, or even asking for help in the first place. See if you can delegate tasks or automate small things if you’re on your own. You might even need to finally ask for that promotion so that you can concentrate more on the big picture instead of the day-to-day. Whatever you do, make sure that you run your day and your day isn’t running you.
What strategies do you use to say “no” at work?