How Do You Know When to Say No?

Earlier this week I talked about what I’ve learned about saying no over my two-year-ish project to reduce my professional responsibilities and my stress. Now, there are books and books and blogs and blogs about saying no, and so here’s my disclaimer that my posts about this topic are more about sharing what’s been on my mind and SO much less about giving advice, because I’m not a life coach or an expert and I’m still learning myself.

So what’s been on my mind about knowing when to say no? Mostly, that anyone who tells you it’s easy to know when to say no or how to set limits isn’t necessarily speaking an objective truth. It may be easy for some people (and it’s getting easier for me!) but if you struggle with this it doesn’t mean you’re not smart or aren’t thoughtful or should have a better grip on things. In my experience saying no is complicated, and iterative, and not always replicable, because circumstances are often unique.

Which means that there isn’t one answer for knowing when to say no. I’m going to briefly talk about what I’ve learned to do and pay attention to, but what I’d really like to know is how YOU know when to say no.

Yes I have a question for the Reference Desk?

Yes I have a question for the Reference Desk?

The more strategies we can name, the more tools we all have!

Yearly Calendar

One thing I started doing a year or two ago is so simple I am embarrassed to admit I haven’t been doing it all along. I have a 12-box grid in my daily planner and each box is one month of the year. I cross out December (because of the holidays) and June or July (whichever month my family is roadtripping that year) and write in any conferences, state or national, that I am attending. Then I let myself write in ONE “extracurricular” professional project in the months that are left over. Right now I am being pretty conservative, so ONE PROJECT is anything from as “small” as a journal article to as “large” as a freelance webinar. On your calendar you might decide you have room for two things every month, or for one large every other month and one small every month…it’s your matrix and your decision. The point is to visually fill up your year, because those deadlines that are 6-to-9 months away ALWAYS feel more doable from the other side of the calendar and it’s easy to think there is plenty of time to spread out all the work. If I can be reminded that the “in between” time is actually full, all the better.

Right now I actually have two yearly calendars in the works, for 2015 and for 2016. This in itself is helpful because as I’m looking for empty months and I’m getting farther and farther ahead that is serving as a reality check. The farther out I have to look for a free block of time, the more I’m likely to admit I should be saying no outright rather than trying to schedule it 18 months from now.

Weekly Calendar

A similar trick works on a smaller scale. I think I learned this from Time Management from the Inside Out but I’m overdue for a re-read and I can’t remember! Instead of blocking out one project a month, if you are asked to do something, try to visualize where in your week you will be able to spend the time on it. Are you going to work on your lunch hours? On Sunday afternoons? Thursday nights? Do you actually have a pocket of time free in your week-to-week schedule that you can devote to the new thing?

One of the realities that has affected how much I can take on is that as I’ve gotten older, I have less “usable” time in the evenings after dinner. I used to be able to work until midnight! Wow! Five hours of getting stuff done after work! Well, my spring chicken days are quite over and I can’t do that anymore. I just don’t have the energy or the focus I used to, and so literally have less time to work, even though those hours are still THERE and aren’t being taken up by anything more taxing than scrolling through Twitter or walking on the treadmill watching Rockford Files.

So be realistic about where the new project is going to go in your week, and if there aren’t any open time slots, then you’ll need to think about what are you going to give up in order to fit the new project in.

Gut Reactions

Frankly, by the time I started my saying no project I was so stressed that when I was asked to do something I didn’t have time for, I felt sick to my stomach. An actual queasy feeling, with the added bonus that I felt like I wanted to cry. Those were real signs and ones I finally couldn’t ignore. Your cues might be different! Maybe you have bad dreams or start to eat too many Twizzlers (ahem) or start drinking Coke again (hypothetically speaking). When my schedule got overloaded (as opposed to just full) I could *feel* it, and you might, too.

I also had to remember the difference between the queasy and dysfunctional “I can’t do this” feeling and the normal and completely functional “I haven’t done this before and I have some butterflies” feeling. Those ARE different, and the more stressed I became the harder it was for me name them correctly, and the more essential it was that I do so.

Also, another way I’ve learned to tell when I should say no is if I really want to say yes, but then realize that I really don’t want to go home and tell my husband I’ve said yes. NOT because he isn’t supportive of my career! He is my best cheerleader and has always encouraged me to pursue goals I wasn’t sure I could reach or thought I was ready to take on. However, I know he wants the best for the whole me, not just library me. And while I sometimes can (and do!) try to squash my own doubts and misgivings when offered fun opportunities, imagining what he would say about my time commitments and work/life balance turns out to be a great litmus test. It externalizes the decision just enough for me to see the situation more clearly and assess things more accurately. I never assume I know exactly what he’ll think, and I still bring things home to talk about, and sometimes I say yes to things he’s not sure I have time for, and other times I think I should say no and he urges me to say yes. So the imaginary conversation isn’t the only tool I use, but it’s become a pretty good indicator light on the dashboard!

So there are three ways I try to assess my time & overall workload before deciding to say yes or no. I’m very much aware these are all strictly time-based strategies. There are LOTS of other reasons for saying no, from aligning decisions to your priorities to lack of interest or skill set to not being able to afford, financially, to say yes. Maybe we’ll make a list of more good reasons to say no in the comments! I just couldn’t tackle them all at once, and for me, the time-based decisions were the hardest ones to make, so that’s what I wanted to talk about here. Also, I’m pretty much talking about managing outside-of-work professional commitments, when you are the one who gets to decide what to do or not to do, and not during-the-work-week responsibilities, when your boss and your department and other factors affect what you must take on or drop. That’s a related but very different situation, and probably fodder for another blog post. 🙂

So how do YOU know when to say no? When have you been right? When have you been wrong?

And let us know what your favorite reads are for help in saying no! Here are two library-world blog posts to get you started:

The Art of Saying No
from BossLadyWrites
How Do You Say No? from In the Library With the Lead Pipe

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4 Responses to How Do You Know When to Say No?

  1. Lisa Mulvenna says:

    When I switched jobs, I felt that I had to say “no” to everything the first year as I was just too busy. Now that I have a handle on what I am working on and when, I have been adding stuff back in (just not to the extent that I used to). It has helped me to pick out those projects that I am really passionate about, rather than being the go-to “yes” person.

  2. Melissa says:

    Lisa, I think the idea of a general moratorium can be a good one and a good way to hit the reset button!

  3. Elizabeth Timmins says:

    Oh my gosh, I am enjoying these posts. Thank you! Sometimes I feel so isolated (and angry at myself for imposing so many projects and high standards ON MYSELF) so thank you for broaching this very important topic. I feel like youth services people are such “givers” and we can be abused because of that.
    So, 1) Yes, I often would stay up until midnight working on projects (I am kind of a night owl) and I have had a long standing habit from my teaching days to work on Sunday afternoons. But I am getting older, too, and I just don’t have the stamina I once had! I will pull some really long days and weeks but then I hit the wall and I just have to rest–there is no getting past it! and 2) I know I have to say “no” when I am abusing fast food and skipping yoga/not fitting it in 🙁 and/or sucking down on liters of Diet Coke at work! I can so relate to so many of your points. I appreciate your blog posts.

  4. Melissa says:

    Elizabeth, thanks for commenting on these posts! Like you, I am getting better at realizing when I really MUST rest and not put in any extra time, effort, or energy. It’s hard–we are in that “giving” profession–and there’s always something else that we could be helping with. It’s good to get some of this out into the open so we can recognize that it’s not an isolated issue or something that we are doing wrong but everyone else is getting right! Thanks again.

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