Learning to Say No

“No, I’m sorry. I won’t be able to do that for you.” Has it been a while since you’ve said that? Do you always find yourself saying “yes” to things you know you don’t have time for? You might need a refresher course in the ability to say “No.”

In time management, there are two ways to find more time:

1) Do the same amount of tasks more efficiently or

2) Do fewer things

We spend a lot of time focusing on figuring out ways to do #1, that we often forget that #2 is also an option. I’m not suggesting you go to your boss and inform him or her that from now on, in order to reduce your stress level, you will only be completing half of your job description. No, when looking for things to cut out, think of those extra favors that people ask you to do. We feel obligated to say yes to all of these things. We don’t want to let others down and we are afraid of destroying our image as a “super human” who can do it all. However, if you truly need to trim down your schedule in your Time Diet, you need to be better at saying no.

Here is the truth: nobody can do it all. Not even you. With excellent time management skills, you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible, but everyone has their limit. The next time someone asks you to do something “extra” that you know will take more time than you have available, use the following tips to help say No:

How to Say No

1) Be Prompt: When saying No to a favor, tell the person as soon as they ask you. It is tempting to say “maybe” in hopes that more time will magically open up in your schedule. This is not fair to the other person. Telling them No right away lets them know you respect their time and gives them ample opportunity to find another person to help them out.

2) Be Honest: You all know how much I loathe the line “I’m too busy.” If you have to tell someone No, don’t use “I’m too busy” as a reason. Remember, the person asking you a favor is also “busy” just like everyone else in the world. We make time for what is important to us and if this favor were absolutely essential, you would make time for it as well. Instead, say something like, “Adding this to my plate right now would really overload me. I’m going to have to say No to this one.”

3) Be Direct: Say No kindly but firmly and then move on with your life. Don’t continue to fall all over yourself with things like, “I’m so so sorry I couldn’t do that for you, it’s been a really bad time for me” or “any other time you need anything at all from me just ask.” Statements like this make you appear as though you don’t value your own time and are not in control of your own time management decisions.

It is also important to remember that if you say “Yes” to favors that you are realistically able to make time for, it makes saying “No” much easier when you need to. You need to find the balance of being the go-to person people can count on and being the person who values their own time and is selective of their tasks.

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Harnessing Unexpected Motivation

Sometimes work just seems to take longer than it should. We may have eliminated all distractions and given ourselves ample time, but we just aren’t being as productive at a task as we know we could be. Why is this? It may be because we just aren’t motivated. Focused work is twice as efficient as unfocused work, but focused work that you are actually motivated to complete is the even more ideal scenario.

I’m not saying you will always be 100% motivated and excited to complete a task or that you should wait around for inspiration to strike before beginning anything. However, when you do feel particularly motivated to do something, it’s often best to just go ahead and do it, even if you had originally planned to complete something with a slightly more pressing deadline.

Adjusting Your Schedule

This past week was my spring break from both teaching and my grad program. I had a detailed plan sketched out of what tasks I needed to complete and when I planned to complete them. On Monday, I had planned to knock out some easy and tedious tasks first that were due right after break was over. However, when I woke up on Monday, I felt ambitious. I wanted to tackle the literature review for my research class. A literature review is the part of a research study in which you read as many published studies as you can that have already been written about your topic and then summarize them into one concise section that will eventually serve as the lead-in to your own research paper. I had really not been looking forward to doing this, and since my paper isn’t due until May, I was planning on breaking up this task into tiny little parts and spreading it out over the month of April to make it more manageable. Usually, this would be a great plan, however, here I was on a Monday morning actually feeling motivated to tackle this challenge.

Even though I had tasks on my choose-to list with more pressing deadlines, I took advantage of this surprising motivation and spent all of Monday and most of Tuesday finishing this literature review. I took frequent breaks to complete chores around my house and make sure I didn’t burn out on this heavy “Meat” task, but overall, I was on a roll for two days straight. By late Tuesday afternoon, my motivation was gone, but I had almost finished my task.

In our Time Diets, we work so hard to motivate ourselves to complete tasks we don’t want to do. We post our goals in our workplace so we remember what we’re working for. We break up big tasks into more manageable chunks and we remove all distractions so we are free to focus on our work. We are so good at manufacturing inspiration that we can’t forget to ignore when inspiration strikes on its own. I ended up finishing those easy tasks I had originally planned to do on Monday a little closer to their due date than I would have hoped, but I was still able to finish everything I needed to do without the risk of missing a deadline. Taking advantage of my surprising motivating to finish my lit review was the most productive decision I could have possibly made over my spring break.

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Planning for the Unexpected

For the past month, I have been loath to touch any door handles, high-five any of my students, or take so much as a walk around the block without my hand sanitizer. Why? Because every single person I know has been sick in the past few weeks.  (That statistic may have been slightly inflated for dramatic effect.) We all know that getting sick is a huge drain on our time management and can definitely disrupt our Time Diets without careful planning. Never fear! Catching this year’s virus du jour doesn’t have to mean a pile of missed deadlines.

First of all, the time to start planning for getting sick is not when you are already bed-ridden with a temperature of 104. Part of maintaining a successful Time Diet involves creating your own deadlines so you aren’t waiting until the last minute to start an important task. As an elementary school teacher, I have to assume that I am going to come in contact with pretty much every germ imaginable on an every-day basis. This is why I try to finish any task at least 2-3 days before I actually need to. That way, if I get sick and am out of commission for a few days, I have less of a chance of missing any deadlines.

Stay Calm, Prioritize, Delegate

But what about when we run into something more than just a little stomach bug? What happens when a major crisis falls in our lap? Something like a severe illness or family emergency? Life doesn’t stop and we still have tasks to complete. How do we cope?  Your Time Diet doesn’t have to go out the window when an unexpected emergency comes up. Just remember 3 things:

1) Stay Calm– This is huge. Remember half the stress of getting it all done comes from worrying about getting it all done. In times of unexpected crisis, remember to breathe and don’t panic. Everything you need to do will happen. Worrying just breeds more stress and that is the last thing you need!

2) Prioritize– An unexpected emergency can often devour most of your time and you must realize early on that you won’t necessarily be able to complete everything on your choose-to list and that’s ok. The world will keep spinning. The trick is to prioritize so you are able to devote the precious little time you do have to the most important things.  It is important to note that the most important things are not necessarily always the ones with the closest deadlines.

3) Delegate– It is all too easy to develop “super-human syndrome” in which we think we have to do everything on our own. This is especially true in times of emergency or crisis! Let others help you! Maybe some Meat tasks are things only you can take care of, but what about all of your Vegetables? When people know you are out of commission for a little while and offer to help, they really mean it. Ask a few willing friends and family members to help take a few things off your plate. (If delegating in general is something you know you struggle with, check out this article: How to Effectively Delegate )

A few years ago, my husband was in an accident that landed him in the hospital….on the other side of the country….a week before our wedding. One minute I was crafting a guest seating chart, the next minute I was on a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to Washington D.C. with a woefully under-packed suitcase. All of a sudden, the million things on my choose-to list didn’t seem so important. My number one priority became making sure the groom made it to the wedding in one piece. My family and friends back home clamored together to finish the things I would no longer be able to do. They tied up the favors in beautiful ribbon, confirmed everything with the venue and finished planning the rehearsal dinner, but you know what? If they hadn’t, the world would not have stopped spinning. I took care of what was most important.

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There Are No Vegetarians in Time Management

Have you ever noticed that when you have a big, difficult project looming over your head, you become suddenly motivated to do everything else in the world except your project? That pile of dishes in the sink? Let me get right on that! The stack of papers waiting to be filed? Sounds like a blast! Pretty soon, my home or office looks amazing, but my project still hasn’t been started. I surely can’t be the only person this happens to!

So, why do we do this? Big projects are Meat tasks. They are difficult, time consuming and require a lot of thinking. It is no wonder we often struggle to find the motivation to start tasks like these! However, most successful people can’t rationalize not working just because they don’t want to start something difficult. We want to be productive, we just really don’t want to start this Meat task. That is why we turn to our Vegetables! Vegetable tasks are much easier and more mindless to do. By filling our day with Vegetables we temporarily mask the guilt of not working on our more difficult Meat tasks. There is a great comic about this behavior here: PhD Comics (If you’ve never read PhD Comics, they are hysterical!)

The problem with replacing Meats with Vegetables is that feeling of productivity is only temporary. At the end of the day we still haven’t accomplished what we need to do. Remember, you need a balanced diet of Meats, Vegetables and Desserts every day in order to be productive.

The Time Diet to the Rescue!

So how do we fix this? Well, since we often view Vegetables tasks as a more desirable alternative to Meat tasks, use that to your advantage! When you sit down to start a Meat tasks, set a small goal for yourself. For example, if you’re writing a paper this could mean finishing the first page. When you’ve finished that goal, go do the most mindless Vegetable task on your “choose-to” list. This will keep you in “work-mode” but give your mind a break. Then, return to your Meat task with another small goal to work toward. Pretty soon, you’ll be far enough in to your difficult task that you’ll be in “the zone” and won’t need to take breaks as frequently. Remember, the hardest part of completing a Meat task is starting it. Once you’re on a roll, nothing can stop you!

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