The power of no

Image courtesy of john.schultz on Flickr

This is a guest post written by Nick Hulbert-Williams.

Sometimes it’s really easy to give a negative response to a question. “Do you want another cup of tea?  No thanks”.  Simple. Sometimes it’s harder to say no. For me, that’s often the case when a slice of cake comes along with that cup of tea. On a more serious note though, some of us just find it impossible to say no. And this includes saying no to the really big things, like at work.

If you think back to yourself at the start of your career, you will probably remember someone who was super enthusiastic, keen to take on any task, accepting any opportunity to prove how great you were. We get into the pattern of being a ‘yes’ person. But then we get promoted. We prove ourselves capable of meeting (and exceeding) expectations. We might have got promoted again. And suddenly the stakes are higher. The tasks we are being asked to do are bigger. They take longer. Even worse is that those little jobs that we’ve always said yes to still keep coming our way. Because we’ve always done them so why wouldn’t we now? And still, we carry on saying yes.

I was stuck in this situation for much longer than I should have been. Most of us have been. Maybe you still are. But it can be really problematic. Because the more we allow ourselves to get dragged into the projects and agendas of other people, the less time we have to do the work that we choose to do. The work that we really value. And when we aren’t doing the work that we value, we rarely enjoy it and end up feeling dissatisfied with our jobs. Enlightened organisations understand this: they want their employees to be doing work that they value and are passionate about because that’s how cool products and amazing services get made.

Of course, there will be times when you simply have to say yes. If it really is an integral part of your job, you’ll be very lucky to get away with saying no too often. (Though if you really don’t value it to the extent you want to repeatedly say no, perhaps you’re in the wrong job. That’s for another blog, at another time). Nearly everyone I know has a job in which they have some autonomy to make choices about how they spend at least part of their time. I’m not suggesting that you should start saying no to everything that a colleague asks you to do. Instead, I’m challenging you to just stop and think before saying yes.  Ask yourself:

Do I absolutely have to do this? If so, you’re probably stuck doing it. Life is just like that sometimes.

Do I want to do this? Will I get some enjoyment out of doing it? Will this task in some way get me to where I want to be?

 If not, just try declining, one in a while.

Warren Buffett, the hugely successful American Businessman, is quoted as saying “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”  If the first few years of my career have taught me nothing else, they have taught me how true this is.

You’ll need to learn when to say no, and to find a nice way to say it, or you may get into trouble. But it can be done. You also need to be realistic: it may not work, you may get talked into doing the job anyway. You may be able to negotiate a more collaborative end-point to the task that you’ll enjoy working towards more, or even a way that you end up doing it, but according to your own schedule and priority list.  The person asking you, may, however, go and find someone else to do it, leaving you to get on with more important, productive things. If you’ve always been the ‘yes’ person you’ll probably get a funny look. You’ll probably feel awkward, perhaps even guilty. But that feeling will pass, and probably quite quickly once you realise that the half a day you’ve saved can be spent on something that you’ll enjoy and value doing much more.  All of a sudden that long to-do list will start to feel much more manageable and not so much like a dreaded chore.