No more Miss Nice Girl
Nice girls are stressed and overwhelmed. If you want better balance, perhaps it’s time to say “No” more often.
Perhaps the biggest discovery I’ve made in my life and career is also the most obvious: By saying “no” to most things that cross my desk or kitchen table, I’m focused, more productive and am rarely overwhelmed by the demands of modern life. The benefits don’t end there. Before now, it all seemed so complicated. All those projects and tasks vying for my attention and time; all that confusion about what’s urgent or important or both, and how to divide my limited time between them. Does any of this sound familiar?
If you’ve got a career and a family, you’ll be no stranger to stress and overwhelm. For years that’s how I was because despite juggling a career, kids and a busy household, I was inadvertently saying yes to everything – endless streams of emails, back to back meetings on days I had too much on, requests for favours from friends and last minute pleas from my kids to create costumes, attend rugby matches and sit through music concerts on a Monday evening. I said yes too often without discrimination and became my own worst enemy, colluding in my own stress, exhaustion and demise.
For a word of just two letters, “no” is surprisingly difficult to use. Whether talking to those we love, those we like or those we respect – not to mention those we work for – it’s not a word that trips easily off the tongue. How many times have you said yes to the wrong assignment, to a meeting you knew to be a waste of time or a family get together you’ve been dreading? And how many times have you said yes to an offer or appointment you know you can’t make just to postpone the pain of saying no?
My friend Andrea illustrated the point when we met for a coffee last Thursday. She arrived looking stressed and frazzled. “I’m exhausted” she said, her words thick with tiredness. “I’m totally stressed out. I was up until 2a.m. finishing a marketing proposal that needed to go out today. What really annoys me is that I had blocked out the whole afternoon so that I could get it done in plenty of time. But then Judy called and said she urgently needed my help with an application and could I help her out.” As Andrea took a moment to exhale, the simplicity of the problem presented itself. “Why didn’t you just say No?” I asked, as sensitively as I could. “Well I should have” she replied with resignation, “but she really needed my help and I didn’t want to let her down”.
“Didn’t want to let her down”. I’ve heard it so many times before, from too many clients struggling with their own compulsion to take on the weight of the world, and all too often in the past from my own inner critic. It’s a classic weakness, displayed occasionally by men but all too often by women who, when it comes to saying no, seem disadvantageously wired from birth: eager to please, keen to be liked and desperate not to let anyone down.
The compulsion to be nice; the fear of disapproval; the willingness to avoid confrontation – I’ve learned that whatever your motives, saying yes all the time is bad for your health, disastrous for your work life balance and damaging to your sanity. There’s simply no room to build a business empire/stratospheric career/work-family balance when you say yes to everything and everyone. The secret to success, I discovered, is selection: the uncompromising selection of only those things that matter, and a ruthless rejection of pretty much everything else. In other words, stop saying Yes all the time and get comfortable with No.
Which is exactly how it happened for me. I started saying No and I kept on going. It felt awkward at first. Actually, not just awkward. At times it was downright painful. Every time I wanted to say it, my heart rate would quicken and my breathing would become shallow. My palms would start to sweat, and though heavily disguised by the colour of my skin, I could always feel the fiery heat of shame rush to my cheeks.
But I persevered. No more constantly checking email, responding to Facebook alerts and answering the phone every time it rings. No more saying yes to small favours, and allowing myself to be volunteered by others to take on big tasks. No more feedback surveys, no more loyalty cards, no more kids birthday parties on a Sunday afternoon (Saturdays are ok) when we normally have our quality family time. No more meetings on a Monday (a bad way to start the week), no going out three nights in a row (exhausting), no kids TV in the week (anti-social). No. No thank you. No I’m sorry. Unfortunately not… I would have loved to but…
I admit that some things are hard to say no to. Like a tyrannical boss or a best friends cry for help during a serious crisis. But it’s saying no to the little things, actually, that make all the difference. All those daily ‘urgencies’ that bully their way to the top of your to do list, cluttering your head and leaving little time for the big picture stuff, the things that really matter.
As I got better at saying no to the small stuff, that constant feeling of being overwhelmed and over stretched began to subside, and so did the Fear. You know – the Fear that life is passing too quickly before your eyes? Well that Fear began to fade. And I watched with delight as small chunks of free space began to appear in my diary, space that I could allocate to the important not urgent stuff, to learning, to relaxing, to time those I cared about and even time for me.
It’s hard to convey the extraordinary freedom and control there is to gain just from learning to say No more often. You have to try it for yourself. If you’re constantly feeling overstretched and overwhelmed, forever despairing about how much there is to do and having too few hours in the day, then the solution may be staring you in the face.
Think you won’t be able to do it? Trust me, all it takes is a little practice. When you see the difference it makes to your life, there’ll be no stopping you. Until then, here are 3 suggestions to get you started:
1. Say yes to what matters – If you struggle with the very concept of saying no, why not turn it on its head? Saying no basically means you’re choosing to prioritise something else. When I say no to a meeting on a Monday morning, I know I’m saying yes to a productive week, and yes to the feeling that I am in control of my life and work. When I say no to a glass of wine on a Tuesday evening, I’m saying yes to a good night’s sleep and more energy in the morning. Focus on the benefits and it becomes so much easier.
2. Be disloyal – If you’re one of those people who likes loyalty cards and mailing lists then, it’s time to rethink. I can’t tell you how freeing it is to say no to nectar points and weekly newsletters from shops I buy from once a year. Who needs to have to carry all those cards around all the time, and who needs all that extra crap in their inbox? Isn’t it full enough already? And how many times have you bought a coffee or popped into a shop to buy something you didn’t need just because you had the loyalty card? It’s time to ditch the cards. Being loyal to organisations and brands may, in the tiniest of increments, save you money, but what about the cost to your time?
3. Get creative – saying no to a friend or family member can be really hard, so why not come up with an alternative. Saying “I’m sorry I can’t manage x BUT, I can do y” or “I know someone else who could help” allows you to say no while still showing you care. Practice coming up with creative alternatives and you’ll be surprised at how easy it is.
Even if you don’t feel stressed and overwhelmed much of the time, we could all benefit from saying no more often and clearing some space in our schedules and in our heads so we can spend more time focusing on what really matters. What will you say no to today?