How often do you find yourself looking at your calendar and wondering how it got so overwhelmingly full? How frequently do you look at an item on your to do list and ask yourself “Why did I agree to take this on?”
One of the biggest time management challenges – especially for women – is saying no to things that people ask us to do. Sometimes it’s that we enjoy being needed and we take pride in our ability to juggle a thousand things and while still producing high quality work. Other times it’s that we really want to focus on our own work but feel guilty or selfish about guarding our own time.
The truth is that, either way, we can’t be very helpful to others if we don’t protect ourselves from burnout and from being taken advantage of, and that requires that we learn to say no. But saying no is tough, especially in conversation, and especially when our ordinary inclination is to jump in and save the day. Here are two mantras you can use to help you say no when your schedule is really too full to take on that extra task.
1. “I’d love to help with that, but let me check my calendar first.” This is my favorite because all it does is break the pressure that comes from the face-to-face or over-the-phone interaction itself. You aren’t saying no right away. You’re just buying time to really examine whether or not you want to take the new thing on. Give yourself that time. And then, if the answer is no, send an email apologizing for being unable to say yes, but explaining that your schedule just can’t accomodate whatever you were being asked to do. If the person who made the request follows up in person or on the phone, you’ve already said your “no” and you can repeat your reasons if necessary.
2. “I can’t take that on this time, but please keep me in mind in the future.” Sometimes we know right away we can’t do something, and the first mantra isn’t necessary because we don’t need to buy time to think about it. I often get email requests to do peer-review of research articles for academic journals. Sometimes I can say yes, but other times I know that I have too much work to do. By keeping the door open to say yes in the future, this mantra allows me to say no in those moments when I have to put my own work first.
I’ve used the word mantra intentionally here. A mantra is a repeated utterance that helps to focus the mind in meditation. The mantras I’ve shared above need to be repeated and practiced so that you can focus your mind on strategically organizing your time and your work. Repeating them will help you establish discipline with your time and control over your schedule. That discipline will go a long way toward allowing you to help others as much as you can while still getting the time you need for yourself and your own work.