When I approach potential clients to arrange a discovery meeting or ask for a start date I often get rebuffed with some variation of “I don’t have time right now.  I’ll reach out when things settle down.”  I don’t say this directly, of course, but I don’t believe them.  I’m not even sure they believe themselves.  They’re stuck and don’t know how to get unstuck.  They’re never going to “find time” to engage with me.  It’s unfortunate, because when they’re stuck is when my help would be most valuable.  There are numerous reasons, which I can uncover given the chance, but one that is very likely to come up is the fact that they just say yes too often.  Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”  Said person is likely busy because they say “yes” every time someone asks!  I’m suggesting the default response should be “no”.  This is especially true for “right now” requests that kill your focus and distract from what really needs to get done.  Now, I’m not saying you have to be nasty about.  I’m just saying that you need to stick to your priorities.  You can say something like “I’d really like to help you but what I have in front of me is my priority right now”.  Or “Joe in engineering would probably be a better person to ask”.  Or even “I can do that for you, but it won’t be done until the end of the month.  Is that OK?”.

Sometimes it is just a matter of reminding the requestor (often your supervisor) that you have other priorities…and limitations.  I remember one time where I was analyzing a complex data set for an internal customer.  My supervisor called me on a Monday morning and told me that the software programmer was here and that I would be working directly with him all week on the project.  Now, I did remember having a conversation with my supervisor about working with a software programmer on a custom database project, but the start date was never communicated to me.  Evidently, today was the start date.  So, I reminded him that we had promised the data analysis to our customer by the end of the week.  My supervisor suggested that I could do both.  I said “no”. I worked with the programmer and my supervisor worked on the data analysis.

I do understand that there are times when you really can’t say no.  But I argue those are rare.  More often than not, you just THINK you can’t say no.  Or perhaps you just don’t want to say no for fear of disappointing the requestor.  And a lot of people like to be the “go to” person that people rely on.  That’s OK if you are trying to move up in the organization, but if you’re now running a department, division, or the whole dang company, saying “yes” all the time is going to bury you.  I once worked with a high-level manager that would say yes to virtually every request, no matter how trivial.  He would even write it down in a little book he kept with him.  Everyone knew that anything that went in that book fell into a black hole. He developed a reputation for always saying yes…and then not delivering.  He would have been much better off if he would have learned to say no.

Delegating is a really easy way to say no.  If you’re a supervisor or executive, that’s the whole point of having people working for you!  This has multiple benefits.  First, you aren’t disappointing the requestor, because the task is getting done.  Second, you are allowing your direct report a chance to shine.  Remember that a big part of having management responsibility is seeing to the growth of the people that report to you.  So, don’t look it as shirking your responsibility by not performing the task.  You are actually contributing to someone else’s professional growth.  This is the definition of win-win.  @Simon Sinek says “Leaders must transition from being responsible for the job to being responsible for the people who are responsible for the job”.  If done in the right spirit, delegating isn’t negligence. It’s a reward for both you and the recipient.  Third, you are freeing up some of your time to work on things that only you can do, which is where you should spend most of your time.

Saying no can free up a lot of your time and improve your focus.  Try it.  Part 2 will focus on some reasons you may be tempted to say yes.

Don’t say yes,