We’re encouraged to say yes to new projects and commitments at work. Saying yes means we’re enthusiastic and ambitious, right? But it has a flipside we sometimes forget about: Saying yes means we’re saying no to something else.
Spelled out, it seems so obvious: when you agree to do something, you’re making a choice to spend your time in a particular way. But your time is a limited resource. It’s worth really thinking about those choices.
There are many reasons we say yes at work, when it would be better to say no. Maybe you’re under pressure. Perhaps you worry declining a request will damage your career or a business relationship. You may dread letting others down. Or you might just be in the habit of saying yes to most reasonable requests without reflecting too much.
If you’re taking on too much at work, you’re probably saying no to other important things. Larger priorities, your personal life and your health need your attention too. And with too much on the go, your productivity tends to be one of the first areas to suffer.
Ask Yourself the Question
Before you say yes, ask yourself the question “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?”
This isn’t always easy to answer. Someone trying to advance their career to support their family may feel compelled to say yes to extra projects and longer work hours—even though it means less time and energy for the family they love and are committed to supporting.
By developing the habit of asking the question, you can make more conscious choices and work out manageable compromises between competing priorities. If a project deadline means working late a few weeks, for example, once it’s over you can deliberately set aside time to rest and enjoy one-on-one time with your partner and children.
Learning to Say No
Be confident in your assessment of your time, resources and priorities. You know them best. When you realize you have to say no, try this respectful and effective method.
Developed by William Ury, world-renowned mediator and author of The Power of a Positive No: How to Say No and Still Get to Yes, it’s a framework that can be applied to almost any situation:
- First, acknowledge the value of what you are being asked to do, the interests of the person asking, and thank them for approaching you.
- If you cannot take on the task, decline in a way that clearly sets your boundaries, without going into a long explanation.
- Find a way to say yes to the relationship with the person and offer a possible solution.
For example – you’re asked to review a document and want to say no, you might reply:
“Thank you for asking me to participate in the review. I know you’ve worked hard on pulling this document together and it’s going to have a wide audience.
Unfortunately, because of other commitments, and although it would be very interesting, I just don’t have the time to get involved right now.
However, I can think of a few resources that might be helpful to you. There’s some good support material on our corporate intranet. So-and-so is also working on a related topic and might be available. I’m meeting with her this afternoon and would be happy to mention it”.
You’ll find being more mindful about what you take on, pays off. You’ll minimize your risk of over-committing and under-delivering—or delivering, but burning out.
Work will become more satisfying and you’ll achieve better balance between your professional interests and personal life. And remember, anything that enhances how you use your time and energy at work, ultimately frees you up to say yes to other things that are important to you.
Can You? Will You?
Yes, you can learn to say no. Here’s how to practice making mindful choices at work.
- What time of day are you typically most productive? Block off an hour or so during that period and avoid email, phone calls and meetings and complete some specific tasks. It’s a great way to say yes to your commitments, yes to the way you work best, and yes to your career.
- Think of meeting invitations as an opportunity to be mindful. Whenever possible, be selective about which you accept. Is your attendance absolutely necessary?
- Being helpful to others is great for building positive relationships. But there’s nothing wrong with reflecting first, when others ask for assistance with small, time-consuming tasks not part of your job. Sometimes the other person is capable, just not motivated. If you do agree to help, set a time not disruptive to your own productivity.