Monday, April 24, 2023

Yes? No? Maybe so? Ideas for thinking about whether to say yes or no to new work.

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful, lest you let other people spend it for you.   - Carl Sandburg

Next week, I'm facilitating a session at a national meeting about the ins and outs of deciding when to agree (or not to agree) to take on new work.

It's a topic I know well from many years  - actually, decades - of saying "yes" more often than I should have.

While the ideas are top of mind, I wanted to share them here.  

The process has two pieces:  making a decision and then sharing it with the asker. 

I'm going to focus on the first part here.   The better your decision-making process, the better your decisions, and, the easier it it to say "no" when you need to. 

Between the ask and the response, there is space - use it!

You may recognize this as a play on "Between stimulus and response, there is space"  from Stephen Covey's book First Things First.

As  the responder, you have a say in the length of that "space."   

If you respond right away, you may be handing over control of the decision to the "fast thinking" emotion-based part of your brain rather than allowing time for your "slow-thinking" executive function to weigh in.

Some of the emotion-based reasons that may lead to a "bad yes" are guilt, people pleasing, and fear of disappointing the asker.  Or fear of the consequences if you say no.

So, don't respond immediately.  Give yourself time to think it through.

BTW, It's okay to ask for more time!  Just say you need some time to consider whether you have the bandwidth to do the thing well.

Then say when you'll get back in touch.  Wait at least 24 hours - or more for big asks.  

Consider this moral framework.

Speaking of bandwidth.  A "yes" is a promise.  If you make a promise and don't have the time to do it properly, that's a problem.  That is, by saying yes, you have created a moral obligation to follow through. The only other morally acceptable choice is to let the asker know as soon as you discover you can't do the work, either to renegotiate terms or apologize.  If you fail to come through over and over, your reputation will suffer, as will your own sense of integrity.

Whew!  Heavy!  

But for me, this was a revelation.  Understanding this framework has made my decisions to say no much easier.  It was not all about me, me, me, but rather about my integrity and need to do the right by the asker.   And sometimes, the right thing is to say "no."  

Is it your turn?

As members of a family, work group, or institution, we are all responsible for contributing.

This can be tricky.  Some people get asked more than others for a variety of reasons:  they like doing the thing, they do it well, they usually agree, or, nefariously, because of implicit bias that leads women and people of color to get asked more often for certain duties that may not add to their resume.

(To read more about this - in fact, a whole book - get The No Club: Putting a Stop to Women's Dead-End Work by Linda Babcock and her colleagues. Although the focus is on women in academics, the strategies will be useful to anyone who finds themself being asked more often than their colleagues to volunteer for not-so-important duties.)

You can also set up a priori limits on commonly requested activities. ("No more than 2 manuscript reviews per month,: or  "only one classroom-parent stint per month.") If you get asked after your limit is reached, you can say "no," confident that it is "not your turn." 

But if, after considering all this, it really is your turn, figure out if you can make the time to say yes.

Don't decide in a "self-interest vacuum."

I used to do this all the time.  The new work would sound really interesting, but I failed to realize I would have to shoehorn it in among all the other commitments I already had. 

"Wait," you might be thinking, " 'self-interest' sounds a lot like 'selfish'."    If that's you, please go back to the top, re-read Carl Sandburg's advice, and then just above to review the moral framework.

Now that we are on the same page, here are questions to help you assess the interest and time "fit" of the new ask.
  • Does this thing fit with your interests and/or goals?
  • Is there something else you will get from doing this that is valuable, like learning a new skill or expanding your network?
  • How heavy is your current workload? Is there really time to do this new thing? If you're not sure, make a list of everything you are doing.  (If that sounds horrifying, you already know the answer...)
  • Don't be fooled by "the empty future calendar" bias.   This happens when the deadline is distant, and your calendar at that time looks open.  Better to assume you will be just as heavily scheduled then as you are now.
If you decide this thing really is something you want to do, but you don't appear to have the time:
  • Is there anything you currently do that you could give up, delegate, or defer to later?  
  • If your boss is asking, can you negotiate about some of your current work?
Get the information you need to make a good decision. 

How much time is this likely to take.  Is there a clear endpoint? Would you need more resources to do it? Is there any flexibility in the deadline? Who else will be involved?

Then ask those questions of the asker, and, if its possible, someone who has done it before.

Consult with trusted peers or mentors.

This is especially helpful if the request is a big one, or if it comes from someone with whom you want to maintain a good relationship, or if you are early in your career and need a broader perspective.

Consult your gut!
"The hallmark of a decision in line with one's character is ease and contentment and an ample, even provision of natural energy." - Anne Truitt, Turn: the Journal of an Artist
I suggested earlier that certain feelings may lead you to say yes when you should not.  

But your feelings do play an important role when it's time to make the final decision.  For example, you may have experienced buyer's remorse when a decision to buy seemed so right and later felt so wrong. 

You can literally flip a coin to help tap into your feelings and intuitions about the decision. 

Assign "yes" to one side of the coin and "no" to the other.  Flip the coin.  

How do you feel about the decision that is revealed?  Do you feel relief or disappointment for a "no?" Does a "yes" lead to "ease and contentment and... energy" or stomach-turning anxiety?  

I know this sounds like a transparent trick, but it actually works!

And finally, if it's a big decision, write about it! Don't just think! The act of writing will lead to questions, feelings, and reasons that you might otherwise miss.