Only a fool keeps walking barefoot down a path littered with broken glass.
Years ago, a leader asked me to commit to leading a weekly meeting. Wanting to please, I said yes without fully evaluating the cost. But after leading one meeting, I realized I should have said no. The commitment was too much for me on several levels. It was embarrassing to have to make the call to back out, and even more shaming to be viewed as a flake every time that leader looked my way. Worse still, I realized that this was a pattern that was hurting me both at work and at home. It’s like I kept walking over broken glass with bare feet but was refusing to get off the sidewalk.
Can you relate? Are you famous for committing to too many things at once, wanting everyone to be happy, even at your own expense? As overcommitters at work or in our personal lives, you and I must acknowledge that saying yes too often takes a huge toll on both our productivity and our core relationships. But learning how to say no to overcommitment takes some practice—and a plan.
I needed help to break my flawed pattern of behavior. A wise friend gave me these three tips that might help you, too, make more balanced decisions:
Often, the opportunity to make a commitment is time-sensitive. When you’re faced with a decision, advises Paula Rizzo, author of Listful Thinking, “Be quick. Tell the person you can’t do it, and politely decline right away. That way you don’t hold up anyone else’s plans.” A quick decision is considerate of the other person. But don’t be too quick to decide, or it could cost you. My wise friend told me, “Don’t let yourself be pressured to give an answer right away. Tell the person, ‘Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you.’” Stepping back gives you time to gather facts, assess your current commitments, and view the potential commitment more objectively.
To help make a good decision, Rizzo suggests asking yourself these questions:
Is it really? Those questions could make a people-pleaser like me feel so selfish! Should I only make this commitment because of what’s in it for me, because I owe somebody a favor, or because I don’t have anything better to do? What about helping people just for the sake of helping them or making them happy?
Well, I don’t recommend a me-first attitude. But these questions are a way to help set good boundaries. Boundaries take into account who and where you are, what you need and have to give, and what the opportunity will cost you. Just as you can only spend a dollar either here or there but not both, you can only spend your time and energy either here or there to remain effective and productive.
You’ve heard the phrase, “No is a complete sentence.” Saying no can be difficult when someone really needs what you have to offer. But you are a finite person, capable of only so much. If you won’t set boundaries and protect your capabilities, you will deplete yourself by acting out of resentment and/or poverty, and everything for which you’re responsible will suffer.
Saying no up front is less damaging to your reputation than having to back out once you realize you’re in over your head—or than saying yes but doing a poor job at every task you undertake. When you overcommit, nothing gets the attention it deserves. Plus, saying yes to everything might also mean that you’re taking a task someone else was meant to do.
When you decide to say no, don’t over-explain why you can’t say yes. This opens the door for the other person to tell you why your reason isn’t good enough. Instead, simply say, “That won’t work for me.” If you can’t leave it at that, advises Rizzo, suggest an alternative solution or ask for a raincheck.
Finally, I’d like to add one tip that I discovered on my own:
It hurts to be labeled a flake, and I certainly don’t suggest that you cut back on every commitment. But only a fool keeps walking barefoot down a path littered with broken glass. If you discover that you have seriously overcommitted yourself and your work and/or home life are desperately bleeding, only you can stop the cycle. It’s embarrassing to have to admit that you aren’t superhuman, but if the other person is honest, he or she isn’t superhuman either, has experienced overload at least once, and will understand.
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