Learning How To Say No Isn’t the Answer

A popular new year’s resolution among those of us in the tech world seems to be focused on getting out from under being so overwhelmed. We’re drowning in a sea of information, our to do lists, our email, travel, work. We buy time management software, read books on getting things done, install plugins for our email, and yet we still can’t seem to be free of the ever present feeling of doom: of being behind, leaving things undone, of running and running and not getting anywhere.

How did we get this way? Especially as many of us in this predicament presumably have substantial control over our workloads. We’re entrepreneurs, tech journalists, consultants. The things that threaten to crush us are too many flights, too many speaking engagements and conferences, too many articles to write, too many projects to complete, too many open tabs, too many blog posts to finish.

And by “we”, of course, I mean me. How did I get this way? Several years ago, when I was still working at Google, I talked to a life coach (yes, Google has those too, along with the chefs and masseuses) about my lack of work/life balance. How do I get better time management skills, I lamented. He told me I didn’t need better time management skills. Instead I needed to cut my to do list in half. “You’re trying to do too many things” was his assessment.

The Luxury of Taking On Less

A simple problem to fix: take on less. Simple, but perhaps not easy.

Consider: we are doing too much. We feel crushed by the weight of our obligations. Yet we tend to be the ones who sign ourselves up. That reads like a contradiction, but the reality is we see the items on our to do lists as obligations, not choices. It’s not enough to decide to take on less if the reason we’re taking it all on in the first place is we feel that we have to. There’s all kinds of advice about how to say no to things, but learning how to say no doesn’t help for things we think we have to say yes to.

The next question then is this: why do we feel we have to take these things on? Surely the answers are as varied as we are, but one potentially core reason struck me as I was reading this post by Bryce Roberts about choosing to say yes to fewer things:

“If I’m not totally excited about something- an new investment, working with a new person, attending or speaking at an event or getting involved in a new project- I’m saying no.”

The ability to do that — to say no to things you’re not super excited about — that’s a luxury. Most of us who have that luxury now haven’t always had it. In fact, many of us who now have that luxury likely only have it because of our tendency to do just the opposite — not only say yes to everything but to seek out new things to say yes to.

Saying Yes To Everything Leads to Success

I get lots of variations on this question: how did you end up with such a weird career path? And the real answer is that I not only sought out opportunity beyond my job description, but I created opportunity and then voluntarily (wholeheartedly and excitedly) worked extra hours for no pay.

For instance, when I was 19 and in college, I worked as a cashier at a home improvement warehouse (similar to Home Depot or Lowe’s) for $5 an hour. Some of the bulkier items, such as lumber and metal pipes, had a tendency to lose their bar codes, so the registers had big binders full of descriptions and SKUs. However, this being a hardware store, the pages were dirty and covered with paint, lists were jumbled together in no order at all, and it was nearly impossible to find the right code. The best you could do was hunt for the right general topic area and narrow down your search until the customer became agitated and impatient and then scan the picture that resembled most what was in the cart.

As it happened, through the magic combination of a college bookstore that let me charge things to my student account, Apple’s educational discount program, and the ability to pay my account with student loans, I had recently procured a PowerBook 140 (cutting edge in early 1992). I took one of those binders, a notebook, and a pen, and walked the store to get missing SKUs from the aisle signs. I compiled everything into an organized structure in PageMaker, printed it all out, laminated the pages, and put new binders at each cashier station.

How much did I get paid for this project? Nothing. I did it all while I was off the clock. Who asked me to do this? No one. What did I gain from it? When I applied for (and got) a writing job at the corporate office of the same company after I graduated, I was able to claim experience not just with cashiering, but with PageMaker and store operational process (as you might imagine, that wasn’t the only such project I took on). Before graduating, I quickly moved up through the ranks at the store, eventually ending up working for the general manager in a position I basically designed myself, doing whatever needed to be done, in whatever hours I had available (which helped me juggle working full time while taking a full schedule of classes).

The point is that these ways of approaching the world (taking on whatever comes our way, seeing a hole that our skills can fill and bridging that gap without even being asked) are in large part what has made us successful.  It’s the best way we know to navigate the world.

Presumably, then, if we stop operating in these successful patterns, we become unsuccessful.

And this, I think, is the core of where we go wrong.

New Situations Mean New Ways of Achieving Success

We are reacting to new situations in the same old ways, not realizing we aren’t in the same old situations. And maybe these new situations aren’t best served by capably taking on everything that comes our way. Instead, we perhaps need to learn new patterns: providing an environment where others can shine by delegating well and providing support, pausing to evaluate the more strategic path rather than the reactionary one, providing better service, leadership, articles, talks by saying no to the speaking opportunity the day before so that we get a good night’s sleep rather than take the red eye across the country.

A key, perhaps, to not being so overwhelmed is to realize that saying yes to everything was the right response then, but it’s not the right response now. It’s not learning how to say no, but learning that in fact, saying no is not only a choice, but a good one. A successful pattern of its own.

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