Should you say No?

How does it make you feel? How does it feel when someone asks you to do something, and you want or need to say no?

I know that for myself it felt really uncomfortable, until quite recently. Then I read a book by Rory Vaden, called Procrastinate on Purpose and it opened my eyes and changed my perspective. Two concepts specifically resonated with me. Saying ‘no’ and The Tyranny of the Urgent.

Saying ‘No’

If you are like many people (like me for example), you might really dislike saying no to people. Others may come to you with needs or requests for assistance and you want to be helpful and supportive, so you find yourself saying yes. You say ‘Yes’ even when you know (deep down) that you really do not have the capacity to do both what they are asking, as well as what it is that you need to do for yourself.

Interestingly, we might think we don’t like saying no, but in reality, we are saying no all the time. As Rory explains; anytime you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. You simply cannot say ‘yes’ to something without implicitly saying ‘no’. By way of example, by taking the time to read this blog, you are saying no to something else you could be doing at this moment.  Other examples are, when you say yes to:

  • Doing other people’s work
  • Attending unnecessary meetings
  • A perception of immediate service (like responding to that ‘urgent’ email that arrives in your inbox at 4.59pm)
  • Reading subscription emails
  • Over-volunteering
  • Engaging in email conversations (email wasn’t designed as a chat service!)
  • Watching a Netflix binge (a startling statistic – the average person will spend nine years of their life watching television)

You just said no to:

  • Getting home on time
  • More time with your kids
  • Being ‘present’ with your spouse or friends
  • Engaging in activities or hobbies that are meaningful to you (such as exercise, cooking, reading)
  • Taking a break to rest and recharge
  • Getting a good night’s sleep

The Tyranny of the Urgent

Stephen Covey was a brilliant man, there is no doubting that. And many people use his Urgent and Important matrix as a time management tool. The issue with this (as Rory explains) is that this matrix was developed by Covey in 1989* (or even earlier by US President Eisenhower in the 1950’s), in worlds quite different to today. These matrices were developed before emails, before mobile phones, before text messages, instant messages and 24/7 availability…and unfortunately, today, ‘everything’ is urgent (or at least that is how our brains are responding to every little alert that occurs on our various devices).

This was a big insight for me – how other people’s ‘urgent’ has been impacting me, how I have been responding (or reacting) to other people’s ‘urgent’ requests, to the detriment of my own time and the things that are important to me.

I will give you one small example. One of my roles is marking student assessments for various qualifications. As a general rule, students have six weeks (42 days) to complete and submit their assignments. I then have three weeks (21 days) to mark their submission and provide the student with their results. At any one time, I could have a dozen or more students submitting and awaiting their results.

Often, a student will submit their assessment, on the 42nd day, and then email me at the same time and ask me if I can mark it immediately, today or ASAP! There is a sense of urgency in these email requests, which are often punctuated with a good amount of exclamation marks!!! The requests usually seem quite reasonable; the student wants to ‘know their result’, ‘let their manager know they passed’, or, ‘book a holiday once they know their result’ etc… Wanting to help and be supportive, I would respond to these ‘urgent’ requests by putting other things to the side and completing what had been requested. (Interestingly, I am yet to hear back from any of these students with so much as a thank you!)

After recognising that in these situations (and many others) that I am responding to the Tyranny of the Urgent, I have changed my response. Just recently, I received an email from a student (and in this case, their submission was actually late. It was overdue by several days). They advised me that they had just submitted their assessment and asked if I could ‘mark it straight away!’ It was about 4.30pm on a Friday and I had other things planned. So, I said no. I explained that I was marking other student assessments and that I had put aside some time the following week to do further marking and they should expect their result toward the end of that week.

It was a relief to say no, and I spent a truly lovely weekend with my daughter without feeling the guilt that often comes with feeling that you are ‘letting others down’. The reality is, that if I had said yes to that student, I would have been saying no to my daughter.

Now, when ‘urgent’ requests are coming in, I am viewing them with a different perspective. Are they really urgent? Or is it someone else’s perceived urgency?

Now, I am not suggesting that we all get super comfortable with saying no to everything (I doubt I could ever get super comfortable with it myself), or that we ignore other people’s ‘urgent’ requests. But maybe take a step back for a moment and ask ourselves; ‘If I say yes to this right now, what will I be saying no to?’

And on the flip-side, maybe we could be considerate of other people’s time and reconsider the ‘urgent’ request we are sending other people (I know I have been guilty of it). We could ask ourselves ‘is this request really urgent?’ or am I also contributing to The Tyranny of the Urgent?

*Scary fact, for those of us that remember 1989 as adults, that was 30 years ago!

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