Imagine you are plugging away at your endless (but prioritized) to-do list, and a VERY IMPORTANT EMAIL pops into your inbox. This email contains yet another request for your already overstretched time. It doesn’t matter if it came from your boss, a client, a partner, or the opportunity gods. It doesn’t matter if it’s a request for a meeting, a deliverable, or a pivot on a current project. Whatever it is, it is one more demand on your finite supply of time. Feeling obligated, you turn to it immediately or add it to your list. Unfortunately, neither strategy is particularly efficient, and both, over time, can lead to burnout.
Working in a mission-driven field can be incredible. You get to work with people who share your passions and go to the office every day knowing that you’re making a positive difference in the world. But, it can also be exhausting. In addition to the fact that the work is challenging and often undervalued – fighting for justice, creating meaningful art, crafting problem-solving design, protecting the environment, and serving those in need – all require immense emotional labor. It can be hard to set boundaries when you are passionate about what you do, but it is absolutely critical.
Saying “no” is one of the most powerful and underutilized resources in our working lives, and saying “no” effectively will make you more productive in the long run. However, if you are anything like me, you may find it really, really, realllllllly hard to just say “no.” To keep from drowning in a sea of “yes,” throughout my career, I’ve developed a set of questions that help me execute what I call “strategic no’s.”
Where does this fall on the priority list?
When a new request comes from a boss or a client, I’ll ask, “Where does this fall on the priority list compared to XYZ other projects I’m working on?” This helps me to identify the importance of the new request and to manage expectations about how much I can accomplish with my time. Being up-front about the fact that this new request will replace something else requires everyone involved to get crystal clear about where the priorities fall. Sometimes that means the new request takes precedence and Z is going to fall off the list, but at least everyone is on the same page.
Am I the best person for this task?
Sometimes, in the flurry of a busy environment, things get mis-delegated. (I don’t think that’s an actual word, but I like it, so I am keeping it. Deal.) Whether you work for someone else, or you work for yourself, at some point, you will find yourself doing a task that someone else could do in half the time. Many of us feel like we have to power through and do everything ourselves, or don’t want to burden a colleague, but this mindset is totally inefficient. If you can do something in one hour, but Sam can do it in 20 minutes, doesn’t it make more sense to ask for Sam’s help? I’m sure Sam will be thrilled to get the business (if you’re outsourcing) or could use your help on something that involves your skillset (if Sam’s a colleague).
Is this task integral to reaching our goal?
I cannot tell you how many fruitless tasks I’ve undertaken in my career. Often, a task seemed important at the moment but later proved completely unnecessary. Sure hindsight is 20/20, but I can think of a few examples where I might have saved myself a boatload of trouble by asking this question.
Can the time/effort required be justified by the result?
Sometimes the fruits just aren’t worth the labor. This is a tough one. It requires sophistication around time management and deep knowledge of your work, but it’s an important one to ask. If you’re going to spend sixteen hours on a project, you better know what the potential result of that project is, and it better be worth more than sixteen hours of your time. Otherwise, you’ve wasted not only the sixteen hours, but the productivity you might have had during those sixteen hours by working on something else.
At the end of the day, we’re all trying to do our best work and make great things happen. Adding a few “strategic no’s” to your arsenal could be just the thing to help you do more with less and work a little bit smarter.
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