How do you “just say no?” You’re a hardworking consultant or enterprise employee. Your day, your week, your life is replete with tasks and deadlines, and it feels as though there’s just not enough time to get things done. Yet you’re under pressure to dive in and say “yes” to everything that comes done the pike? In an environment where you feel that your performance and your attitude are under scrutiny, how do you manage your time better? How do you relieve the sometimes-overwhelming sense of stress you live with?
Elizabeth Grace Saunders (@RealLifeE), a time management consultant, has excellent suggestions in her article “9 Ways to Say No to Busywork and Unrealistic Deadlines.” This piece is a real gem, because it not only points out the traps to avoid but also suggests some politic, but non-smarmy ways to “just say no.”
Ms. Saunders notes that her clients struggle to manage three areas: time commitments, tasks, and time frames. Consider these scenarios.
You’re sitting innocently in your designated space and you’re asked to volunteer on a committee. Your commitment could add up to as much as 60 hours a year for something that doesn’t really grab you. (Yes, it’s a good initiative but … ) So you smile sweetly and say something like, “Thanks for thinking of me, but I must respectfully say no, because I’m maxed out right now. I’m sure you can understand.”
Ms. Saunders says, “Saying no to time commitments that don’t align with your priorities or needs can lead to a small amount of initial discomfort but save you hours of time in the end.”
We all have a list of daily tasks as long as our arms and the more contact we have with our fellow human beings, the greater the potential for that list to expand. Ms. Saunders notes that you have “every right to say no” when someone asks you to do something that’s not on your list of responsibilities. But you may need to retrain others not to look to you as their first resort.
She suggests saying something like, “Gee, that’s not one of my competencies, but I know someone who can help. Here’s her contact info.” She also proposes that the next time you’re in a meeting and tasks are discussed, keep your mouth shut. “Not offering to help is one of the best ways to say no.” All this assumes of course that you can’t genuinely can’t take on anything more. My thought: Saying no is a professional responsibility, not a matter of caprice.
Everyone wants everything yesterday, and they can come to you with deadlines that are somewhat arbitrary and negotiable or just plain unreasonable
For a deadline that can shift a day or so without issues, you can propose an alternate deadline. I’ve done this, and it works. For a bigger project with an unreasonable timeframe given the other things you must do, try asking your boss to create the priorities. Or respond with a counterproposal. The key, from what I read in Ms. Saunders’ article is to sound calm, not frantic. Here’s her suggestion: “I hear that you would like this by the end of the month. But with the other projects we have going on, it won’t be possible to meet that deadline. I would like to propose a deadline of mid-next month. Does that sound reasonable?”
I believe we will always have too much to do. (A business coach I worked with for a while said that small business owners will always feel “overwhelmed,” and I think that’s true of any employed person these days.)
But as Ms. Saunders says, “The difference between living a life of peace and productivity versus a life of stress and resentment could lie in one simple skill: Learning how to say no.”