I Forgot How To Say “No”
by Roger Reid
It’s been a few weeks since my last post. It’s the longest I’ve gone without writing an update. It wasn’t intentional. But the last two months have been so hectic and at times, overwhelming that I’ve had to set my own work aside to finish consulting and writing projects for others. I’ve even had to reschedule the release date of my new book.
I’m not making excuses. It’s just a fact. And there’s no one to blame but myself.
How did I let it happen? I forgot one of the cardinal rules of personal productivity . . .
I forgot how to say “NO.”
It’s one of the most challenging parts of keeping the distractions at bay. Because a lot of distractions come disguised as requests for your time.
My definition of a distraction is anything on which I choose to spend personal time or effort but has a priority determined by others. For example, a fellow blogger asks me to review a post and provide a few notes before it’s published. Or a fiction author asks me to do a chapter edit on a new book. Or a consultant wants a landing page punched up to improve the click-through rate.
Some of the projects I’m asked to work on are interesting. I want to do them because I see potential and possibility in the work. And being asked to contribute is a kick to the ego. It’s difficult to resist. And if I’m completely honest, I also feel a sense of obligation. Some of these people are my friends, and I want to help them succeed.
And so I let my work fall behind because I make commitments to others.
If you’re good at something, others will ask for your help. And on the surface, there’s nothing wrong with that. Helping out is part of life.
But if “helping out” means sacrificing the priorities you’ve established in your own life, where do you draw the line? And just as important, how do you convey that your desire to help is sincere, but your current circumstances and workload make it impossible?
You need protective covenants—a set of parameters to determine how much of your time, energy, and effort you can spend on priorities set by others. In turn, this will help you justify your decision, and if that decision is yes, to rationalize the time commitment—and not regret the decision later.
1. Always weigh the cost. It’s easy for requests from others to take over your life. A simple question can turn into a fifty-hour research project. A request to “throw together” a thousand words for the next issue of a trade magazine featuring a friend’s business becomes a week-long marathon of rewrites and edits. Suddenly, you look back over the last month and realize you didn’t spend enough time on your own goals and now you’re behind schedule—because you were busy advancing the projects of others.
Before committing your time, make it a habit to delay your answer until you take a hard look at your schedule. Can you still complete the work you have planned? If not, what are the consequences of pushing your deadlines into the future? What about the timelines of the work you’re being asked to do? Are they really set in stone? If you can get the extra work scheduled without disrupting your own, that’s one thing. But if your personal projects and progress will suffer because of the priority shift, weigh your decision carefully.
2. Evaluate the relationship. Granted, there are people and relationships that are too important—personally and professionally—to put at risk. If that’s the case, accept the fact you’ll need to delay your own work to maintain the harmony and future promise of the connection—a choice which often has its own reward in the long-term. You can still make it clear your time is already scheduled to 110%, but you want to help. For example, “Based on my current workload, I can’t take it over for you, but I can certainly help you with it.” Then use the technique explained in step three to reduce the amount of time you’ll need to invest.
3. If you decide to help, delegate the work back to the person doing the asking. Let’s say you’re asked to write a product feature/benefit presentation for a landing page. Instead of sitting down and personally researching similar products and reviews from buyers to determine what consumers like and don’t like about the competition, present the task to the asker as step one. When it’s complete, follow up with step two by asking for a list of what’s different or unique about the new product that makes it more effective, less expensive, easier to use, and so on. In other words, break the project down into steps that the asker can complete without requiring a huge time commitment from you. The result? They end up doing most of the groundwork.
Here’s another example: Your friend asks you for notes on a new book he’s writing. He’s especially concerned about the actions of the protagonist in chapter three—they don’t reflect the personality and character traits established in the previous chapters and he’s concerned about destroying the character’s authenticity. Instead of furnishing him with a re-write, ask your author-friend for a list of reasons, experiences, and rationale that would explain the behavior twist. Could any of these be written into the backstory as a prior example of erratic behavior triggered by a specific circumstance? If so, ask to see a re-write incorporating the change. In both examples, your function is reduced to suggesting, directing, and guiding—much less time-consuming than actually working the project to completion.
4. Determine if your contribution is completely unique. Can the work be done by others who are in the business of consulting and research? Fiverr.com is an excellent source of independent contractors looking for work. Does your friend need a business plan? A phone app? Or how about some graphics work or original content for their website? All of these services and more can be found on Fiverr.com. The next time you’re asked to provide your time and energy to work on a project that could easily be handled by an online expert, suggest the asker provide a written explanation of what they need, including the desired outcome. This can be used to solicit bids from folks who are ready to work. Many times, having a clear and concise description of the needed service is a huge step toward finding a solution. If your time permits, you can offer to review the bids that are received.
5. Set a limit on what you’re willing to do. Set limits, either in the number of hours or the extent to which you’ll complete the work. This could take the form of offering to spend a couple of hours a week on the phone, answering questions, brainstorming, or providing suggestions. Or, you could critique the work already done, offering ideas to improve it. Personally, I’ve done (and still do) a lot of copywriting for small businesses that can’t afford a full-time copywriter or ad agency. Some of these projects have been for new startups with owners who knew very little about the nuts and bolts of writing a compelling offer or how to use graphics to increase reader engagement. I was able to do the work quickly and effectively because I knew their business and market as well as they did, and by adding a few tweaks, could increase the perceived value of their products and services to potential customers.
6. If you decide to help, establish a realistic value for your contribution. In many cases, the reason you’re asked to help is because the “asker” can’t afford the level of professional service you typically provide and is using the relationship to acquire expertise that is economically out of their reach. Make it clear you understand the stress and frustration of trying to create a successful venture on a financial shoestring. But if the project is successful, suggest the possibility of a future payday (if not money, bartered service, future discounts, etc.), especially if your contribution is a major part of getting the venture off the ground floor.
For example, you may want to offer to trade your services for an equity interest. If the project or venture is a for-profit activity or enterprise, ask if you can be compensated with a share of ownership that is commensurate to your contribution. This is especially important if you know your continued availability will be needed for expansion, product launches, promotional activity, etc. A word of warning: Equity can be a real incentive to becoming a permanent part of the team—just make sure it’s a team you want to join.
It’s difficult to say “no” to someone who’s counting on you, especially if it’s someone with whom you have a continuing relationship. And yet, always saying “yes” can result in a lack of progress on your own work. Protect your time the same way a bank protects its money—accounting for every hour in and every hour out. By establishing limits, you’ll take the first step toward getting the most from your time—regardless of whether you spend it advancing your own career or in the service others.