In part 1 I introduced the concept of ‘doing too much’ and what the tell-tale signs were of someone who does too much and has difficulty saying no. In part 2, I tell you what the consequences are and give you some tools and techniques to help you.
This is really about boundaries. Learning about boundaries was a turning point for me. In this post I call them my terms and conditions but the terms are interchangeable.
After spending years working 13- or 14-hour days for 6 days a week, I decided enough was enough and started saying no. I worked out my ‘Terms and Conditions’ and I listed them. I systematically reviewed all of the work I was being given and I reviewed all of the people who were giving me that work to determine whether they met my T&C’s. If they didn’t, they got cut.
Here’s what I learned when I did it:
- I didn’t get told off. I didn’t suddenly get bad karma. My reputation didn’t fall through the floor and I wasn’t suddenly perceived as being lazy or rude or unhelpful. I also didn’t lose my top standing performance grade either which quite frankly astonished the hell out of me. I genuinely expected to be ‘benched’ as a top performer. I wasn’t.
- The world didn’t fall apart. Other people picked up the slack and the important stuff got done. In some cases, some of the things that I had been doing just got dropped as they weren’t important enough. This was hugely frustrating as it made me realise just how little people cared about some of the work I had been busying myself with!
- Once you start saying no people stop asking. They work out what you are and are not prepared to do. I found this hard as I equated the lack of people asking for my help as an indicator of my value. I had to go inside myself to decouple my self-esteem and self-worth from what I did. As I said in part 1, you are not what you do. It allowed me to be more selective in what I wanted to get involved in and do the worthwhile stuff that mattered to me most or that raised my profile.
- Yes, some people were surprised, offended and a little hurt when I said no. Whilst the action was brutal the delivery was as kind as I could make it but one of the things you will learn is you will upset or offend some people. It comes with the territory. You have to learn to be okay with that.
- I had to back it up with action. A couple of times I said no and then did the job anyway when coerced. This was a mistake and a big one. I eroded the boundaries I had started to put in place, undid the good work and looked flaky and inconsistent. Don’t fall into this trap.
- Don’t explain, don’t over apologise. This one took a loooong time. Every time I said no, I started it with a long-winded apology full of unnecessary justification. I wasn’t comfortable saying no so I over-compensated. I realised that trying to stop being a doormat by coming across as a doormat wasn’t all that helpful!
Know this: the more you set your boundaries, the better you will get at it and the more natural it will feel.
I felt empowered and in control and the more in control I felt, the more I acted differently. I acted confidently. The more I acted differently, the more others responded and treated me differently.
When you have limits, when you show what you tolerate and what you don’t, people recognise it and they learn.
I have worked with client’s who have started to say no to their boss or intimated to their work colleagues that they have had enough and the first thing that happens is that their boss calls them to tell them how valuable they are. This has happened so many times, I am no longer surprised by it.
Saying no with legitimate reasons shows you have a spine. A backbone. It demonstrates that you aren’t just prepared to do anything or everything. You have a limit; a price, and you are not willing to compromise on that. You will walk away if you have to. And once someone feels they are in danger of losing something or someone, the value of that something or someone increases immeasurably.
Please understand that when I teach these techniques, I am not teaching you to be unreasonable. If you struggle with boundaries there is a good chance you will be reading this and thinking in some cases it does feel unreasonable. Good. You’re on the right path. When you start to do this, it will feel uncomfortable. But know that you are not being unreasonable, you are simply adjusting your parameters and setting your standards and chances are it’s well overdue.
So, here’s my principles and techniques for saying no and working out where you should and shouldn’t be spending your time.
Prioritization techniques. AKA what you should and shouldn’t be working on:
- Do a review of what work is urgent versus genuinely important and worthwhile. Use the urgent versus important four quadrant grid and map it out. This is a well-used technique in coaching and leadership for good reason. If you are someone who always seems to be ‘firefighting’ then this is a good strategy for you.
- Plot all of your work activities into the grid and then see what it shows you. I know many men and women who find they spend 60% of their day in the ‘Urgent and Important’ quadrant and the remaining 40% in the ‘Neither urgent nor important’ quadrant. They never get to the important and worthwhile stuff. This often includes any self-improvement or profile-raising activities. If all your work sits in these buckets, then there is an issue here and you need to re-examine your priorities.
Got it? Great. Do this again and again until you feel like you actually have time on your hands. Then do it a bit more. The idea is to get rid of about 50% of the activities either through elimination or move the ‘urgent’ to ‘slightly less urgent because the process works better so you have more time to do it.
Saying no tactics and things to think about:
- Be politically smart about how you wind down your work activities or say no. Don’t direct it all at one person or one group otherwise they may think you are just being unhelpful. Spread the load! Say no to different people that way you don’t offend any one person and you encourage more people to understand your terms and conditions.
- Firefighting and last-minute fire drills are unfortunately a common place problem for a lot of people and in many cases, you can’t control the work you get at the last minute from other parties. Sometimes it’s because they don’t care or are horribly disorganised but, in my experience this isn’t common. Most of the time people give you a fire-drill because they are also spending their time on just as many fire drills as you are. Most people aren’t trying to be a deliberate pain in the backside. You need to learn to distinguish the difference.
- If you see a repeated offender, politely but firmly insist on time in their diary. Highlight the last-minute nature of their requests and how problematic this is for you and the knock-on effect for them. For example, reference the fact that the quality of your deliverable may be compromised because everything is a rush job.
- If they are living in a fire-fighting nightmare, have some empathy. Don’t be critical. Or judgemental. They probably have their own world of pain. Tell them you would like to work together to implement strategies that make it easier for both of you. Oh and for heaven’s sake don’t take on their problem. I’ve fallen into that trap before! The idea is to improve the process in small incremental ways that benefit you both (mainly you but them as well) but with you firmly dictating the rules of the road.
- If you find yourself on the receiving end of someone who you know full well is just giving you last minute stuff because they can’t be bothered to organise themselves or they don’t value your time enough call it out but be more direct. Don’t be accusatory but observe that it keeps happening and if it continues to do so, you will have to escalate to your boss the headache it causes and you will ask your boss to have a chat with theirs. I tend to find that sorts it out pretty quickly.
On actually saying no:
- Be polite but firm. If it’s a colleague asking, say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have the time to do that but thank you for thinking of me’ or ‘I can’t unfortunately work on X because I have another piece of work that has a strict deadline’. Keep it short and simple.
- If someone asks you to attend a meeting in the evening, then I tend to find something like: ‘I’m sorry I can’t. I have a hard stop at 5pm, 6pm (or whatever time you stipulate)’ works. In my experience no one challenges this or ever asks why.
- If it’s your boss asking, you need to be more strategic. Be upfront and ask about prioritisation. Be clear that you have a heavy workload then ask which item you should drop or swap out. Or simply state that you have a lot on but offer an alternative or recommend someone else who is qualified to take on the task.
- Managing your boss (or your bosses’ boss) is always hard and you must be more considered. If the issue is a repeat one you can’t just follow the above and leave it at that. You have to build a more sustainable strategy. Address it head on and book some time with them to discuss your workload. Don’t whinge about how much you have on your plate. Talk to them about the amount of work and how you can both marry it up to the work they need doing but the work that add the same time the work can benefit you perhaps not in all cases but certainly in some. Come with well thought through suggestions so spend time in advance preparing for this type of conversation.
- Be calm in your response and confident even if you don’t feel it for the first few times. If you are anxious or your voice wobbles, breathe through it.
- If someone pushes the point, then ‘I’m sorry, but I really can’t’ should suffice. If they don’t take no for an answer then ‘I have said I can’t, and I would like you to respect that’.
- Back it up with action. Say no and mean no. Don’t change your mind, don’t cave in. Stay firm, unwavering and resolute.
Getting the balance right on this can be tricky. Take it step by step and you’ll get there.