The ability to say no, is an ability that does not come naturally to most people, yet the few that can and do say no, are the one who are in complete control of their day to day lives and do not allow the urgent of other people destroy what is important to them.
Recently I sat down with a client of mine and he was angry. His whole body language indicated that something had really pissed him off. When I asked him about it, he told me one of his colleagues (and not a boss) had come to him at 6pm and asked him for a forecast for the first quarter. He needed it first thing in the morning and so it was urgent. When I asked how long it would take him to prepare the forecast he said two or three hours. I asked “what did you say?” He replied, “nothing”.
When pressed further about why he did not refuse, he said he couldn’t. “My colleague needs the file and if he told my boss I did not help I would be in trouble”.
And therein lies the problem for a vast majority of people. They can’t say no because they are worried about what other people will think of them if they do.
In the case of my client, he worried that if during the presentation, his colleague was asked why he did not have the first quarter’s forecast he would be blamed. Yet, the fault here was the colleague who disgracefully “forgot” to ask for the file earlier in the day, and dumped it in the hands of my client at 6pm on a Wednesday evening. What he should have done is said: “sorry no. I have plans this evening” and given his colleague the raw data to make the charts himself. If the colleague blamed my client in the presentation, my client could very easily have explained he was not asked until late the day before, but did pass on the raw data, thus shifting the blame back on to his colleague. By not saying no in this instance, my client has left himself open to this happening again and again.
If you are going to achieve greater productivity and greater success in your company, or with your own business, you are going to have to learn to say no. Saying no does not have to be rude. A simple; “I’m very sorry, I’d love to help you, but I have a big project to complete myself” In this case, you are saying no, but in a very polite way.
The problem with being a ‘yes man’ or ‘yes woman’, is that people will always take advantage of your kindness. Say yes too often and you will find out very quickly you are doing the work of your colleagues because they have shifted the responsibility on to you. The dangerous “you are so good at designing presentations, could you help me design this presentation” I call it “the fake compliment” is a great example of this. This situation rapidly leads to you becoming the department’s ‘expert presentation designer’ and soon everyone is asking you to design their presentation for them. Of course you will never get the credit if the presentation is complimented. You will only get the blame if the boss does not like the design.
Setting up some red lines is vital if you want to achieve greater things for yourself. You are not going to be evaluated on how much of your colleagues’ work you have done that year, you are going to be evaluated on the quality of your own work, and if you spent a lot of time doing the work of your colleagues that just means you are spending less time doing your own work.
Being a productive person means saying no to a lot of things that come your way. It also means you need to know what is important, and what is not important. Your colleague’s work is important to your colleague, but not always to you. You need to learn how to distinguish the difference. For example, if you are working on the same project and the deadline is approaching, then of course giving your colleague a hand is important. But if a colleague comes up and asks you to format a Word document for them, that is not related to anything you are working on, then a polite no is called for.
One of the things I advise all my clients to do, is to educate their colleagues (including their boss). Show them you are not a ‘yes person’ and that you value your time. Don’t for example reply to email or text messages after 9pm or weekends — that just tells all the recipients you work late at night and that you are accessible outside office hours. Not a good precedent to set. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but replying to all email and other messages outside office hours is not a habit to get in to. If you have the time and the inclination, then by all means write the reply, but send it during office hours. A good trick to use is the delay reply function many email apps have these days. Set the delay to send the email at 8am or 9am — this sends a message to your colleagues that you work during ‘normal’ office hours. They will soon get the message. Very quickly they will learn when to expect a reply from you.
Another tip is to negotiate. When a colleague, boss or client asks you to do something, before they give you a deadline, tell them when you can do it by. For instance, if you receive an email asking you to proof read a report for a colleague, send a quick reply saying “No problem, Jane. I should be able to get it back to you by Friday”. In my experience nine times out of ten the recipient will be okay with your deadline. If they are not, they will tell you. By negotiating deadlines, you can spread out the work you have to do and create better working conditions for yourself.
The ability to say no to things is a skill like any other skill. You need to practice it to get good at it. Being able to make decisions about whether you have time to do something or not and whether you actually want to do it will improve over time. But, to truly get productive and organised, you need to be in control of your time and to do that you need to be the one making decisions about where you spend and on what you spend your time on.
Carl Pullein is the author of Your Digital Life: Everything you need to know to get your life organised and put technology to work for you, a book about how to get yourself organised in the twenty-first century