Saying "No"

You can't do it all, so think about when--and how--to not say yes

2 min read

Why do the busiest people seem to have the most time? They assess how much they can handle, and sometimes they decline additional tasks.

And they decline the right ones. It seems there’s a rule that 20 percent of your tasks will take up 80 percent of your time. (It would be a variant of the Pareto Principle, which says that, for example, 80 percent of beer sales come from the 20 percent of consumers who are heavy drinkers, and 80 percent of customer-support time is filled by 20 percent of callers.)

Of course, you can’t always say no. You’re part of a workplace hierarchy, and sometimes you’re handed tasks instead of offered them. Nor is an option to say ”no” a license to shirk work. But there are sometimes situations where you can better manage your workload by emulating Bartleby the scrivener, the Herman Melville character who brushed off all his boss’s requests that he do some work by saying, ”I would prefer not to.”

First, meet your commitments. A lyric from singer John Mellencamp says it well: ”It’s what you do, not what you say.” The street version is ”Walk the walk. Don’t just talk the talk.” Concentrate on the things you’re supposed to accomplish and their time frames. Once you’ve earned a reputation for getting things done, your ”no” will have more credibility.

Assess your time commitments. Keep track of your tasks and estimate the time they will take. I use Microsoft Outlook to list tasks and due dates. Upcoming tasks go in a folder named ”Due this week,” helping me monitor near-term overload—it’s the ”red zone” on my job’s thermometer. It provides a context to evaluate new requests for my time.

Know what’s important. Take on new things if there’s a fit. All types of commitments—from work, to extracurricular, to family—require the same parameter: hours of time. If you’re at your limit, try a ”zero sum” approach: take on new things only if you give up or cut back on something else.

This isn’t easy. I remember mentoring a rail signal engineer with 10 years’ experience who had too many commitments. Her performance was suffering, and she wasn’t organized enough to handle it all. I advised her to identify and drop two or three lower-priority activities, but she simply couldn’t and had to live with the stress.

Don’t be a perfectionist. Perfectionists seem to have a particular problem with saying no, and, what’s worse, they go on to take more time than needed, making them even less available for new tasks.

Learn how to say no without saying ”no.” Here are a couple of ways to tacitly assert the negative.

Ask if you can do it later. Emulate the sportscaster, Marv Albert. When offered yet another public appearance gig, instead of a flat-out ”no” his typical answer reportedly is, ”I’d really love to speak to your group, but I’m too busy now. Please contact me again in the future.” The work version of this would be ”My plate is full right now. Can this wait until [future date] when I can take it on? Or, I’d be able to handle this if I didn’t have to do X, or could put that off until [future date].”

Negotiate the scope of the item. Discuss how much really needs to be done. Ask if you could shift some of your tasks to someone else, reduce the scope of the task, or get more resources. Use ”no” as a starting point toward a better ”yes.”

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