“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” – Greg McKeown
For most of my early life, my answer was always “Yes”.
When people needed favors, when someone needed my assistance (even if I was already overbooked), when co-workers would push their work off onto me, my bosses would overload me with work, my answer was always, “Yes.”
In hindsight, this passiveness came from the desire to get along, not be viewed as difficult, and as a way to prove that I was a team player. But I believe it also came from a place of fear: fear that I would be disappoint; fear that I would be seen or judged as non-productive; fear that if I said “No” to anything, they would take it all away from me.
Eventually, I hit a breaking point. I finally said “No!” Probably more emphatically than I needed to, but the energy behind the “No” was also due to an overwhelming sense of dread that I had just cooked my own goose, as it were, and gave them reason to fire me. And what happened?
Did I get fired? No. Were they angry? Yes. Were they frustrated? Yes. Did things, as I expected them to, get worse?
From that point on, it got easier for me to say, “No”. I had already stepped off the ledge. I had already risked everything with my first “No”. So, saying it again was no real additional risk. And, over the next few months, it almost became a test. How many times can I say “No” before it all goes bad.
In the end, I found that saying “Yes” all the time caused an insurmountable amount of stress, it made it impossible for me to meet all my deadlines, and it didn’t allow me to actually enjoy what I was doing. Everything was “Crank it out, send it out, move on to the next emergency.”
Saying “No” – even occasionally – allowed me breathing room. It allowed me to put more time and energy and care into fewer projects and actually start to create ‘things’ that I was increasingly proud of. I began to enjoy my work again. I started to see – finally – that doing 10 projects with focus and care and enthusiasm was FAR greater and more rewarding than doing 100 projects shabbily, just to get them done.
An unexpected side benefit >> People respected me more; they respected my time more. They asked instead of demanded. They began to view my time as important because I had begun to display importance for my time.
Now – People automatically assume that I am always busy, and they know that I may say “No” if they simply try to dump their project on me without preamble. With this firmly in mind, they stop and think before coming to me. I imagine an internal conversation that goes something like this: “Is my project worth Lee’s time?” Or… “What can I say to Lee to get him to add this to his “To Do” list?” This assumption comes from the tone and content of the conversations my customers have been having with me ever since the first time I said “No.”
Negatives to saying “No”? Don’t overdo it. If you say “No” to too many things, you take the risk of being viewed as lazy and not part of the larger Team. The trick? It’s all in the follow-up conversation AFTER the “No”.
When I say “No”, I always quickly follow it up with specifics about why the project cannot be done “…at this time.” This is even easier if I am already working on another project for them.
Example: Before the first “No”, I would regularly have people come to my office with half-baked ideas, musings they had just before going to sleep, or epiphanies that popped into their heads – half-formed – when they woke up that morning. They’d run their ideas by me, then they would figuratively plop their partial idea on my desk, and then they’d walk out – fully confident that “Lee will fill in the blanks and make it into reality.” In my more somber times, I viewed this practice on par with people who would say, “Lee, I have an idea for a book. It’s brilliant! Y’see, this girl gets her heart broken, she steps away from society, and when she comes back, she is now more confident and can take charge of her life. You know…the emerging swan-type story, right? Okay Lee. I’ve done the hard part – I had the idea. Now you just crank it out, okay?” That’s the way my customers would approach me with their business ideas.
But saying “No”, I had forced them to think these ideas through, to consider and reconsider if it was worth my time (Because remember, I finally established that my time is now valuable, so they began to view my time as valuable). Then, over time, the frequency of these spitball sessions and knee-jerk project requests almost completely disappeared.
Do I still get the odd request with no merit? Or the occasional epiphany request? Sure I do. But I know how to handle them now. I talk through their proposal with them, but I do it in a way where THEY eventually come to realize the true merit of their not-completely-thought-out idea. And when they do, when they reach that moment of realization, the look of understanding is almost beyond words. You see the truth click behind their eyes. You see their shoulders slump slightly. You can literally watch them go through the 5 stages of grief as they realize that their gangbusters idea is missing some or all of the components needed to actually be actionable. At that point, they can’t get out of my office quickly enough. They nod, they say something to let me know that they will “table” the idea “for now”, and they smoothly slide out my door. That normally only needs to happen once for a person to permanently learn to think twice and thrice before doing it again.
They learned something – just as I learned something.
So again, please remember >> “If YOU don’t prioritize your life, someone else will!!”