One of the most difficult things I have had to do over the years is to learn to say no. As a people-oriented person, it is very difficult for me to say no to anyone—I don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them feel unimportant. As a result, ever since I was a teenager I have been overloaded with things I have agreed to do. I have always made too many commitments.
Saying no is simple, but not simply done by most people. I have tried all kinds of ways to say no in my life. When I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, for example, I became so overwhelmed with things I had agreed to do that I sent out a letter to a number of people saying, “I am dying—dying from good opportunities. If I don’t do something about it, I will not be long for this world.” Then my letter went on to say that I had to drop a number of things I had agreed to do, just for survival. I apologized to each reader because I had to drop something I had planned to do with that person. The letter helped me out of the crisis in the short run, but was not something that made me proud.
To be effective in the long run in relieving overload, I’ve determined that you have to have a systematic approach and philosophy on saying no. I recommend three steps:
1) Be clear about what you are doing, and what your priorities are. If you are purposeful about how you are currently managing your work and time, it is easier to say no to new activities that are seemingly less important. We have a saying in one of our programs that goes, “A person who does not have goals is used by someone who does.”
To be proactive about saying no, you need to be very clear about your own goals. What are you trying to accomplish during a given period of time? How can you focus your energy on things that will move you toward those goals? This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and inflexible if a new assignment or opportunity comes along, it just means your goals become your reality check. Within those goals, set priorities and stick to them. Then you will be better able to discern whether something is consistent with your job or area of expertise, which will make it easier to determine if you should take it on.
All good performance starts with clear goals. Without them you will quickly be a victim, because you will have no framework to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy. I become much better at saying no when I am more clear about my focus and what my goals are.
2) Be clear and realistic about the consequences of doing one more thing. This is for yourself as well as the person who wants you to do something new. I’ve found the best approach is to be honest and direct. For example, say, “If I do this, I won’t be able to do the other things I’ve committed to.” Or, if for no other reason than past history, you can say, “With what I’ve got going on right now, if I take on this additional task I feel certain that I won’t do as good a job as I’d like, and we will both be disappointed.”
In recent years when a new opportunity has come my way that I know I’m not able to do, I often compliment the idea (if I feel it has merit) and then simply say: “I don’t choose to get involved.” I’m amazed how, when I use this powerful approach, people very seldom say, “Well, why can’t you do it?” They just accept it and say, “Thank you.”
3) Offer alternatives and solutions. Suggest someone else who you feel could do the job or who may be available sooner to work on the task. If the request is from your manager, suggest a project or priority you are working on that could be dropped, delayed, or given to someone else, or ask your manager to do the same.
The degree of flexibility between these three approaches is, of course, a function of exactly what the task is, who is asking you to take it on, and the time frame involved. A request from your manager is going to involve more consideration and discussion than a request from an associate or someone you don’t know. Still, these basic approaches work.
Research done by Charles Garfield, author of the Peak Performance trilogy, clearly shows that peak performers only focus on a few key things. And the late, great leadership expert Peter Drucker asserted that the people who truly get things done are “monomaniacs on a mission”—people who focus intensely on one thing at a time. The more you take on, the greater the chance that you will lose effectiveness in not only getting that particular task done, but in all aspects of your life. Keep in mind that when you say no to someone, you are not saying no to them, only to their proposition. And never forget the old expression: “Nobody can take advantage of you without your permission.”