How to say no right now

Originally posted Nov 24, 2020 • More resources on building resilience & leading through crises

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We are in an absolutely bananas season.

In other years, this season is chock full of age-old traditions. While there’s often opportunities to make new choices and refresh old routines, we are typically still surrounded by the hallmarks of end-of-year traditions at home, and at work. Family gatherings, roadmapping meetings, budgeting and performance reviews and celebrations with gift-giving abound.

This year, though, we all seem to be wrestling with a fresh mountain of tough decisions and open questions about what we should, or even can, change.

In this newsletter, I’d like to give you permission to say “no” far more than you’ve done in the past. Everyone I talk to is burned out, or on the way there. The act of saying “no” is one big tool in your toolbox that can be super hard to reach for, because it also takes a lot of energy to wield.

My goal is to help make it feel a bit easier to say “no” right now so you can get a bit more breathing room (and have space to say “yes” to the right things).

We’re going to follow these steps:

  1. Identify the #1 thing you are optimizing for through the end of the year.
  2. Run any decision past that #1 thing.
  3. Say “yes” or “no” in a way that works for you.

Let’s dig in. I’ve got your back.

What’s the #1 thing you are optimizing for, through Dec 31?

This question never ceases to be useful for me. We are all optimizing for something, and that thing will keep changing! So let’s figure out what you’re optimizing for right now, from today through the end of the calendar year.

You might be optimizing for something at work, or something at home, or something out in the world. You might be optimizing for breathing room, or shipping that one big thing, or getting more sleep, or reducing stress. I need you to spend time with this question before you go any further, because the answer will unlock so much more for you.

Right now, in this season, I’m optimizing for locking in the stuff that’s happening each day for the rest of 2020. I need to know what I’m doing every single day for the next 37 days (whether that’s a workshop, or making a wreath for our front door, or scheduling coaching calls, or doing nothing except playing video games) so that I can feel some sense of predictability again.

I recommend you keep your answer to this question as short and specific as possible. We’re timeboxing it because we know the answer will change over time, and we can’t have a catch-all answer. Spend some time today answering this for yourself, and write it down somewhere, so you can reference it going forward.

Use your “optimizing for” statement to help make decisions.

Our days are full of choices:

Your job right now is to run any decision or choice through your “optimizing for” statement.

Here are the decisions that have come up for me so far today:

  1. A beloved client asked to squeeze in another workshop before December 15. Should I try and squeeze it in?
  2. I’ve got a timely idea for an article about workplace resilience. Should I try and pitch it to that big site I admire?
  3. What should we have for dinner?

The #1 thing I am optimizing for, through Dec 31, is: locking in the stuff that’s happening each day for the rest of 2020. So what does that mean for my decisions?

  1. Another workshop: No. I’ve already booked my max # of workshops for these months. Saying “yes” would mean forcing other non-work commitments I’ve made to shift around.
  2. Article pitch: Is there a day I’ve already dedicated to writing within the next 2 weeks? If yes, put it on the list as a possible thing to write about. Otherwise, no.
  3. Dinner: I assigned today as the day to write this newsletter and have coaching calls. I don’t have additional time to cook. I’ll order some takeout from (thank goodness) the spreadsheet I’ve already created for our go-to takeout choices.

Really be honest with yourself about the decisions on your plate and what they mean for your “optimizing for” statement. Remember, this is time-bound! Your “optimizing for” statement will probably change after December 31. We’re intentionally limiting it to what you need in this season so that you can more easily make hard decisions.

Say “no” in a way that works for you.

You have your decisions. Time to say “no” to some stuff.

Here’s what I wrote in the “Saying no” section of Resilient Management:

Once you’ve identified those priorities (or at least feel like you’ve got a bit more clarity on what’s important and what’s not), there are several tactics you can experiment with to help you say no more efficiently:

  • Ask your manager, a leader on the team, or someone else you trust to hold you accountable to saying no more often.
  • Make a calendar item at the beginning of the day to spend twenty minutes figuring out what to say no to.
  • Draft emails that you can copy and paste whenever you need to say no clearly and gracefully, but feel hesitation.

Who can help support you, and hold you accountable, to saying “no” more often? Maybe it’s your partner. Maybe it’s a peer. Maybe it’s a friend. For many folks, saying “no” is a team sport; we lean on those around us to help get it done. In case this is you, copy/paste these templates to ask for their help:

I love that last one, especially. Sometimes we just need a ghostwriter for the hard emails we need to send!

If you go the calendar item route, be sure to include your entire “optimizing for” statement in the event title. This will help you ground your decisions in the specifics, rather than continue to wrestle with what feels right or not. I recommend your reminder includes the word “decide” or the phrase “say no” so that you spend this time taking action, rather than just thinking about it.

And if you use Gmail, take advantage of the templates feature as you draft emails. I have templates for referring the types of work I don’t do to other amazing consultants and coaches. I have a template for kindly declining invites to speak due to scheduling conflicts. I have a template for responding immediately just to say “Thank you so much! Apologies, I’m unable to take a look at this right now. I’ll [be able to reply more in depth, or be scheduling this type of work] beginning in January; please feel free to reach out again then if you still have this need.”

Saying no sounds like it’s closing you off to something. Like you might miss out. Or even like you might upset someone. But what you’re really doing is creating a path for you to truly get what you need: that thing you’re optimizing for! And some more breathing room along the way.

Woman speaking to camera with video player buttons underneathWant some extra support as you lead your team through this challenging season?

Check out my new Building Resilience video course to find exercises, tips, and homework to strengthen your network and manage your energy.

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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