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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

The One Word That Can Save You When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed

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I’ve written before about the power of the word yes. When you’re job searching, trying to change careers, or otherwise looking to build your network in a short amount of time, making it a point to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way can have amazing results. Not every event, interaction, or meeting will be fruitful, of course, but the only way to find those that are is to agree to them, regularly.

But I’m also a big proponent of the opposite: defaulting to no.

Even when I’m not in the season of say-yes-to-everything, I find myself yessing pretty often. Sure, I’ll come to that meeting, be on that task force, grab drinks, grab coffee, grab dinner. Of course I’ll be at that event. No problem to stay at my place!

In fact, I say yes until I find myself with a jam-packed calendar that not only stresses me out every time I look at it, it leaves no time for the activities that keep me balanced or the big priorities that really matter to me. And I realize that in order to say yes to those things, I need to say no to others.
Right now is one of those seasons, and I’m committed to saying no to anything that’s not necessary to move my goals forward or that doesn’t add joy to my life. Want to join me? Here’s how it works:

Cut the Fat From Your Calendar

Open up your calendar for the next month, and see what’s on it, in both your work and personal life. Ask yourself the following:

  • What doesn’t need to happen now?
  • What doesn’t need to happen at all?
  • What doesn’t need to happen by me?
  • What’s on here only because I think I should do it, not because it’s necessary or I want to?

Try to be as ruthless as possible here: Remember, even if a meeting is on your calendar, doesn’t mean you necessarily have to attend. Perhaps there’s another person on the team who could attend in your place; perhaps you could ask for an email update afterward.

Make a list of the items in question: that brainstorm session you were invited to out of courtesy but don’t really need to participate in, that networking event you’ve been dreading, that coffee meeting you agreed to without really thinking about it. Now, here’s the fun part:

Punt or Cancel at Least One Thing

OK, before this gets fun, it also gets a little scary, but I promise, it’ll be worth it. Look at your list and cancel, delegate, or move anything that can go—but at least one thing. I find that removing even a single item is helpful in making me feel like I’m more in control of my schedule, but typically, once I get started, I find I can eliminate at least two or three.

My Muse colleague Stacey Gawronski makes this very, very easy for you with templates that help you cancel plans, even at the last minute. Done right, most people will be just fine with a nice, “I’m really slammed right now—mind if we push our lunch date out a few weeks?”

What now? Re-block that time on your calendar for you and whatever you need right now. What are the most important things you need to get done? What do you want to do most? Use that time for one of those activities.

Start Defaulting to No

Now your calendar’s a bit clearer—nice, right? Let’s make sure it stays that way. Any time you’re invited to something, think through the questions above. Does it need to be done? Now? By you? In many cases, the answer’s yes, but make sure you really feel that way before adding something.

If the answer is no, here are a few lines I’ve used to professionally decline the request:

Thanks for the invite, but I’m confident that the rest of the parties in the meeting can [move forward / make decisions / brainstorm] without me. Let me know if there’s anything you need my input in after the meeting, and I’m happy to weigh in.

I normally find that this conversation can be hashed out over email. Here are the next action steps on my end. Let me know if you have any questions after taking a look, and I’m happy to jump on a call then!

Unfortunately, the next few weeks are really crazy for me, and working on this over email would probably move things forward faster. Then if there’s anything we need to meet on after that, we can schedule some time?

To decline personal invites, writer Alexandra Franzen has a good one:

I need to say “no,” because my week is already quite full—and I know it wouldn’t be smart (or humane) for me to add anything new to my plate.

And entrepreneur Marie Forleo might have my favorite one of all:

I have a rule: If I don’t have time to see my mother, I don’t have time to meet new people for coffee. And right now, I owe my mama a visit. But seriously, I’m sure we’d have a blast and I hope you’re not insulted, but my work schedule is packed and I’ve gotta pass.

Here’s another trick that’ll keep you from getting overbooked: Set aside time in your calendar for you. My most productive hours are in the morning, so when there’s a lot going on, I make sure those hours are blocked for just getting work done. If I know I have a busy work week, I mark “Free evening” a couple of nights a week—a helpful reminder when I’m tempted to overcommit.

If you’re thinking about this and feeling a little guilty, remember: You don’t have to default to no to everything, forevermore. This, like saying yes to everything that comes your way, is a season. Though, once you try it out, you might just find that only saying yes to the things that really matter is a way of life you want to stick to.

Trying out a #seasonofno? Let me know on Twitter!