If you’re a busy professional, I’m betting that at some point in your career, you’ll feel torn by the continuous push and pull of giving your time, energy, and resources to others and saving some of it to take care of yourself. Whether you run your own business, manage a department or simply clock in and out of your job each day, you can probably relate to the struggle of wanting to do everything that’s asked of you—but not being able to.
I understand this dynamic all too well, and I’ve had to learn how to say “no” in the interest of keeping myself productive, happy, and, quite honestly, sane. Now, the ability to say “no” doesn’t come easy for most. It certainly hasn’t for me. In fact, it’s still an ongoing challenge at times. But, if you don’t learn how to master this important skill—yes skill—you could end up not only burning out in your personal and professional life, but also potentially compromising your health.
With that in mind, here’s my advice for saying “no” with intelligence and grace.
Value Your Own Time
Before I co-founded my software company, I was a practicing physical therapist for 15 years. It’s safe to say that helping people is part of my DNA; it’s something I’ve been addicted to my whole life. During my clinical career, I felt fulfilled as I watched patients make progress in their healing journeys. I experienced that success alongside them. But now that I’m in an executive role and no longer treating patients, I fulfill that calling to help others in different ways.
When women’s leadership groups or entrepreneurial organizations invite me to speak to their members or fresh entrepreneurs ask me to mentor them as they launch their startups, I’m eager to help. Making a difference in these people’s lives and businesses is rewarding to me on so many levels, and it’s nearly impossible for me to turn down those opportunities. After all, they don’t cost me anything but my time, right?
Wrong. Thinking of commitments that way is a slippery slope. Let’s say I get asked to judge a panel of entrepreneurs who are pitching their startup ideas. I love doing things like this, and I know I would genuinely enjoy the opportunity. But, even though it wouldn’t cost me in terms of money, I’ve come to recognize that my time is extremely valuable. So, I’ve shifted my thinking to view each potential commitment in terms of its opportunity cost. If I say “yes” to this engagement, what will I have to say “no” to in exchange? Is it sacrificing a weekend day with my daughter? Losing out on an important meeting with my executive team?
Once I began to quantify the opportunity cost of every “ask,” it made the decision a lot easier. Because the truth is, every time you say “yes” to one thing, you’re simultaneously saying “no” to other things you could have done with that block of time. And it’s important to weigh those things and figure out what matters most to you.
Stay True to Your Roots
I thrive when I’m helping people, and feel I’m at my best when I’m connected to others. No matter how big our company gets, I make it a priority to stay grounded and in touch with where we came from and the people who helped make us what we are today.
So, if I have to choose between a rehab therapy trade show and an interview, I’ll often choose the trade show because it gives me a chance to interact with more of our customers (who are also my peers). I also tend to skew my time allocation in favor of activities and meetings with my team, because they’re the ones who are in the trenches of our company, executing our vision. Thus, building rapport with them is an extremely worthwhile use of my time, as it strengthens individual team members as well as our company as a whole.
Rely on Your Team
An added benefit of having such honest and authentic relationships with my team is that I know I can trust them to keep me accountable. We regularly talk about our company goals and my individual goals as the president, and they give me refreshingly blunt feedback about whether they think certain opportunities are worth my time.
This gives me checks and balances when I’m tempted to say “yes” to too much or stretch myself too thin. Ultimately, the choice is still yours, but a strong team can become your voice of reason at times. I always take their input to heart, as they’re often able to take a bird’s eye view when I’m too hyper-focused on trying to serve everyone –– they remind me of the opportunity costs.
As I mentioned, this is an ongoing effort. Yes, it’s absolutely possible to sharpen this skill, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t still struggle to decline opportunities when my schedule is overloaded. And I’m guessing many of you feel the same way. The key is to know yourself and your strengths, and build in the safeguards necessary to help keep your weak points in check.
For me, that means evaluating the opportunity costs of each potential engagement and checking in with my team for their feedback. This allows me to more easily—and objectively—determine whether a particular request aligns with my goals, needs, and schedule. And that, in turn, makes it easier to say “no.” Plus, it makes saying “yes” that more more fulfilling and exciting.