If you ask a person on the street which word is likelier to contribute to personal and professional success—yes or no—that individual will probably choose the former. But as many leaders in the world of business and politics will tell you, learning to say no can be every bit as important as knowing how to say yes. The reasons for this are largely intuitive: by turning down some engagements, you free up time, energy, and mental focus for the endeavours you find most inspiring.
However, many of us feel distinctly uncomfortable with saying no, often because we worry that doing so may cause offence or otherwise lead to negative social consequences. Insofar as it compels us to take on more commitments than we can handle at any one time, this anxiety can hamper our pursuit of the professional and life goals that are most important to us.
Establish and respect your own boundaries.
Your work is surely a high priority for you—but so are your health, quality time with friends and family, leisure time, and other hobbies or avocations. Think of your lifestyle as analogous to a meal: nearly everyone would prefer a flavourful medley of high-quality, healthy ingredients to a monochromatic, humdrum dish of little nutritional value. Likewise, if you devote all of your time to a single work-related project, you probably won’t enjoy a wholesome existence.
Once you set parameters like the number of hours you’re willing to devote to a new project, and commitment versus expected benefit, you’ll find it easier to distinguish the undertakings that really interest you from the also-rans.
Be honest with yourself.
Before you dive headfirst into any significant assignment, ask yourself the following questions:
2) Five years from now, will I look back on my efforts with pride?
3) Is it consistent with my values?
4) Why is it important to me to take this on?
5) Will I be able to dedicate sufficient time to this?
6) Do I have the necessary technical expertise, and/or can I partner with someone who does?
Unless you can answer all or most of those questions, you’re better off saving your talents for something that’s more up your alley. Otherwise, you’ll likely either feel stretched too thin, or a sense of regret about the opportunity cost.
Know your strengths.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. The first step on the path to success in any field is to identify your own. Once you know where your own aptitudes and deficiencies lie, you can work to refine the former and improve the latter. You’ll also know which of your personal attributes you can rely on in high-pressure situations.
The willingness to venture outside one’s comfort zone is often an admirable quality. But if a project either isn’t your cup of tea from a technical standpoint, or you sense that your time would be better spent elsewhere, you should consider either turning it down or delegating it.
Strategies for politely declining:
“I’d like to know more. Can you send me more information?” This serves two purposes. First, it provides a test of the other individual’s commitment; if you never hear from h/er, you will know. Second, it gives you the opportunity to learn more about the endeavour itself before deciding whether to take it on.
“Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” This is not an explicit demurral, but it does enable you to buy time. It is possible that the person who pitched the idea to you will forget after a while. Alternatively, on further reflection you may decide that the project is right up your alley.
“This seems like an excellent, worthwhile idea, but unfortunately...” Shortage of time is an excuse that most people will accept, particularly if they’re not close friends of yours who happen to be conversant with your schedule.