Do you feel the need to say ‘yes’ to everything? Katherine Hays, the CEO of Vivoom, says she constantly reminds herself that ‘saying no is her most important responsibility’. No – a word that many of us associate with rejection, and hence experience discomfort around saying it. But this disposition boomerangs in many contexts.

Whether it’s a colleague asking for a meeting on Sunday, or your manager advancing a deadline by a week, you might be wanting to turn it down. But you don’t. Karen Dillon, coauthor of ‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ highlighted the core need behind this – we all want to be viewed as a yes person, a go-to person, a team player. This leaves us burnt-out, throwing work-life effectiveness straight out of the window!

How can we draw boundaries skillfully then?

Experts weigh in heavily on pausing before responding to the request. It might be tempting to sign-up for writing a new business proposal. But assess the request first. What’s on your plate already with respect to work and personal life? Can you reshuffle it? Of course, the situation gets sticky when stakes are high – impact on your promotion, or visibility with the CEO. Dillon suggests providing the person who’s making the request with details about your workload so s/he can ‘help you evaluate the scale and scope’ of the request.

24 — (Number of Hours of Sleep) — (Commute) — (Personal Commitments) — (Self Care): Elizabeth Saunders, author of ‘How to Invest Your Time Like Money’, offers this formula to understand how you spend each day. The remaining time is what you have for your work. All of it. Can you accommodate the new request now?

If you realize you are spread thin, deny the request appropriately. Don’t say something like ‘There is enough that I am doing; ask someone else’ or ‘I can’t focus due to my personal problems’. Instead, share the list of projects that you are tackling already, and say ‘I feel pressed for time with these deadlines, and if I take on your request, I’m afraid I won’t be able to do justice to it. Hence, I have to turn it down this time.

Notice how the statement involves different elements – an assessment of your time, the impact that may have if you take on the request, and a possibility of collaboration next time. This way, you’re isolating the impact of your ‘no’ to this one instance. And if it still feels challenging to undertake, offer empathy – ‘I understand that by me turning this down, your tasks are piling up’. You can even offer small instances of support like an idea or reading material.

Cornell University’s Staff Assistance Program has listed some stand-alone appropriate ‘no’ statements, which you can use:

  • Josh, let me check my schedule and I’ll get back to you. How about if I let you know by tomorrow?
  • I know you were hoping we’d be able to work on this over the weekend. That isn’t going to work for me though.
  • I can’t stay late Thursday because I have family commitments. Can we brainstorm on Monday?
  • I’m not free to meet in an hour, but I am free later tomorrow;

As squirmy as you may feel about upsetting someone by saying ‘no’, remember the old adage – ‘Good fences make good neighbors’. If you practice building these fences over time, chances are you’ll take a big leap towards the balance you’ve always dreamt of. Go for it!

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