I enjoy a silent chuckle each time I ask how someone is doing, and they answer “busy”.
Let’s face it: If we want to engage fully in our careers and our personal lives, our days are bound to be packed. Since time is finite, it’s imperative to schedule those days smartly. This means being mindful and strategic when choosing where to devote our precious 1,440 minutes each day (which includes nearly 500 minutes of sleep). Part of that battle is learning how to say “No” when someone’s request doesn’t rank at the top of our priority list.
Often we get taken off-guard when someone unexpectedly asks us to do something, to join something, or to chair something. Reliable professionals like ourselves are not only sought after, we love being involved. It’s in our nature to please others, and we sometimes attempt to think of ourselves as superheroes. Our knee-jerk reaction is “I can certainly just squeeze in one more thing”. The result: “Yes” leaves our lips before the reality of the promise registers in our brains!
My old approach used to be “shoot now, ask questions later”. But after hearing two different colleagues rattle off their work-related commitments recently, it became clear there is a need to learn to assess new opportunities carefully, set boundaries, and say “No” when taking on the task just doesn’t make practical sense. The greatest move you can make when someone (besides your boss) asks you to do something is to take a 3-second pause, giving your brain time to process the dynamics of the task. You wouldn’t want to spread yourself too thin and then burn out or disappoint people in the process.
The following bits of advice are designed to help you initiate the 3-second pause, and learn how and when to say “no” to someone’s request without coming across as negative or unaccommodating. Put these into practice and you soon may find that “busy” is no longer a 4-letter word.
Compose Your Response
When you’re first approached with a request, pause. Ask the person questions like “What will this entail?” or “What is the time commitment?” Graciously thank the person for thinking of you, and express that you’re truly honored they asked you. Then make a request of your own….for a little time to think about it. Your words will resonate positively when you convey that you want to assess your ability to engage in the project authentically without robbing time or energy from your other priorities.
Gather Some Perspective
After you’ve asked for some time, give the person a date you’ll get back to them by. This may amount to a night to sleep on it, or warrant a more extensive episode of interviewing people to gain perspective on the endeavor. Of course, the decision deadline is partially dictated by the sense of urgency of the asker. Overall, your assessment considerations should include the time commitment, resources needed, convenience & benefits to you, and your relationship to the person asking. Keep in mind that despite questions and interviews, you often won’t know what’s involved until you actually start to “get your hands dirty”, which can be a lesson in-and-of itself.
If your assessment yields the conclusion that the task at hand isn’t enough of a priority to say “Yes” to, you can still walk away honorably by applying a thoughtful letdown. When you share your response, reveal your thought process. For example, “This offer is so attractive because I would learn so much / feel great giving back in this way / love to work with this esteemed group of people. But after an honest assessment, I can’t commit the time”, or, “I am involved to capacity and wouldn’t be able to give this the attention it deserves.” Then, like the true professional you are, go ahead and offer a few possible candidates for the position (and, of course, the appropriate introductions). In considering who might benefit from the opportunity, think about the individuals who would bring the skills needed to get the job done. You could wind up being a hero to others while protecting your time, energy and the success potential of your priorities.
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