One of the most difficult pieces of advice I’ve ever heard is to “just say no.” I always felt frustrated by this advice because while it’s well-intended and correct, it is far easier said than done. Whether it’s at work or even as a parent, you may have received many requests to do something or participate in. if it’s too much, you shouldn’t feel bad about saying no.
Personally, I don’t have a huge problem saying no, but I know others who struggle with this. The keys to sticking to your guns are: 1) self-awareness about why you feel the need to say “yes” so often and 2) developing a process for evaluating & responding to the never-ending stream of requests you receive.
Here are 6 guidelines that Tracey Laszloffy suggests in The Black Academic’s Guide to Winning Tenure Without Losing Your Soul.
1) Avoid Saying “Yes” On The Spot Whenever someone asks you to do something, avoid saying “yes” before you’ve had time to consider the request. Try to buy some time by saying something like “Let me check my calendar and I’ll get back to you.” Then you can take a look at your weekly schedule to see whether you are available to accommodate anything outside of your normal workload.
2) Estimate How Long It Will Actually Take You To Complete A Request I keep track of how much time various routine requests take so that I can be informed when I make decisions. For example, while being a committee chair always sounds like an exciting and essential opportunity to expand my network and maybe even enjoy a few drinks after work or some Saturday lunches, it’s also an enormous time commitment. If you don’t know how long something will take, don’t guess – figure it out by asking someone who’s done the task before you.
3) Consult Your Calendar My calendar can get pretty full and the closer we get to the end of the year, the less time I have available. When someone makes a request, ask yourself: when specifically can I complete this task? Not in vague terms, but be specific. Literally what day and what period of time are available in your calendar for this activity? Given that you’re not going to compromise your job, time with your family or self-care the answer should be clear. If you can’t find time in your schedule, then you don’t have time to get it done.
4) Ask Yourself: Why Would I Say “Yes”? For a while, the word “yes” was a default response. I would respond “yes” and thought I had to have a special reason to say “no.” Then I became tired, angry, resentful, and unpleasant. Finally, I started asking myself: “Why do you keep saying yes?” For me, it was some combination of wanting to be involved, pleasing people and pushing myself as far as possible. With all those guilty feelings going on in my head, no wonder I kept saying “yes” to every request or alternatively, feeling intense guilt, shame, and disappointment on the few occasions I said “no.” Once you do that too, you can became aware of why you say “yes”, and develop new criteria for evaluating requests. You can even flip your default answer upside down to “no” with a special reason to say “yes”.
5) Figure Out How To Say “No” And Do It! There are so many ways to say “no,” and you’d be surprised to know how easily people accept “no” for an answer and move on to find someone else to accommodate their request. You could say “no” in any of the following ways:
- “That sounds really great, but I just can’t take on any additional commitments at this time.”
- “I am in the middle of _________ [fill in the blank with your highest profile commitment], but maybe I can help when I’m done with my own commitments?”
- “I’m not the best person for this. Why don’t you ask ______________?”
- “If you can help me complete my goals, I can try to help you complete yours.”
- “No.” [Look the asker in the eye and sit in silence]
6) Serve Strategically Finally, a great piece of advice is to be strategic about your service. It doesn’t have to be precise but whatever the percentage is, use it as a guideline for how much time you can spend on service each week. If service only counts as 10% of your promotion criteria, then spending anything more than 4-6 hours per week on service activities means you’re over-functioning in that area. The percentage will be different for you, but once you know about how much time you can spend on service each week, then say “yes” only to the things that fit your broader agenda or make sense for you.
Learning how, when & why to “just say no” isn’t easy; it takes time, practice, and clarity. But being able to do it is an important part of making time for the things that really matter to you.
I hope you can now understand the reasons why you say “yes” even when you shouldn’t & gather the strength to say “no” often, confidently and without guilt.