Plate overflowing? Learn how to say 'no'

2014

If you're feeling overloaded, overbooked, and overwhelmed, perhaps it's time you learn how to say "no." I'm not talking about being belligerent or difficult, but rather managing your activities to regain a sense of sanity - and be more effective.

Over the past several decades, psychologists have been studying Cognitive Load Theory, based on the assumption that human beings have a limited capacity when it comes to working memory. Essentially, internal cognitive load has to do with how we think about things and process them within our minds, while external cognitive load has to do with other things vying for our attention.

Computer geeks humorously correlate cognitive load with the term random access memory (RAM). And, just like RAM, excessive cognitive load inhibits our ability to process things efficiently and effectively.

As you might imagine, it's the external things vying for our attention that overwhelm us the most. With today's multiple communication channels we're more aware of what's happening: dozens of events that could benefit us, as well as hundreds that won't. Not only does this require us to make more decisions, but the mere conveniences of technology can also infiltrate our boundaries and diminish our effectiveness.

For example, a quick phone call or text message asking for something is easy and makes us more productive, right?

Maybe yes, maybe no. I know one administrative assistant whose boss thought nothing of calling her at 10 PM so he could get a status update about something he forgot to bring up in a meeting. This behavior was so common that she began to leave her cell phone home when she went out, but this only angered the boss who wanted to know why she wasn't answering her phone.

This is a clear work-life boundary violation, but it's also an example of an employee who didn't know how to say no.

Your situation probably isn't that extreme, but if you're like most people, your schedule is spilling over or you may be experiencing guilt for not keeping up with all the activities that people say you should attend.

To truly be effective, we need boundaries as well as good "cognitive load management." Both of these require learning where, when, and how to say no.

First be aware that when you say no, it's best if you're first clearly know what you want to achieve - your primary personal mission. This helps to know where to set your boundaries. Then recognize that you have the right to pursue your goals, which means you have the right to say no to whatever activities get in the way of them.

In other words, to be effective, we have to say no when something will take us off our intended course or when the cost outweighs the benefit.

The problem with saying no is it can come across as abrupt, so we tend not to say it. So, let's consider other ways we can say no.

One of my favorites is "I'm sorry, that's not going to work for my schedule." People have a difficult time arguing with your schedule, so it's harder for them to pressure you. However, if they do apply pressure for you to say yes, you can always say "I'll look at it a little closer, but right now I don't think it's going to work."

If the person making the request is a superior, saying no to a request can be more difficult. But if you are truly overloaded and running yourself ragged, a very bold technique is to open your day-timer or take out your project list and genuinely ask which deadlines he or she thinks you should adjust to make time for the new task. This technique can be quite successful in helping your boss see just how busy you truly are, but it must be done tactfully and it's not a technique you can use too often.

Other, less-confrontational techniques are available. I strongly suggest memorizing such phrases as:

  • "I'm sorry, I can't commit to that right now."
  • "That is really a bad time for me. I have another priority that requires my attention."
  • "You know, I'm probably not the best person for that. Have you thought about asking ____?"
  • "Please understand that I'm honored, but can't right now. Thanks for asking."
  • "That sounds wonderful, I wish I could make it. Let me know how it works out."

Even the above phrases can be difficult, because most of us want to be helpful. In business, saying no to something can also involve a fear of missing out on a great opportunity or the concern that we might be burning a bridge.

Still, if you're trying to get your life back because you are tired of working 60 hours a week, or, if you're just trying to stay focused on your main goals, familiarizing yourself with these phrases allows you to set boundaries so you can regain your sanity

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Dan Bobinski is a training specialist, author, and an accomplished keynote speaker. He's been providing management and leadership training to Fortune 500 companies as well as smaller, regional concerns for more than 20 years.