One of the biggest hurdles to work/life balance is the inability to set proper boundaries. Simply put, it is our inability to tell others “no” that is often the culprit behind our unbalanced and out of control lives. To make matters worse, the lines between work and life have gotten so significantly blurred (right now you are probably reading this post on your mobile office – your cell phone) we can be working anywhere and at anytime. It is a rare manager that proactively sets that boundary for us by telling us when and where to draw the line. Whether we like it or not, the burden is on us to take control. Saying “no” is the first step.

Why is saying “No” so hard?

So why is saying “no” so hard? Saying “no” can be one of the most difficult and challenging statements to ever pass through our lips. This simple statement is difficult for two significant reasons:

Reason #1 – We are afraid of disappointing others. We just can’t bare the look in our boss’ eye when we have to tell him / her that we simply can’t do what they are asking. For that matter, we can’t stand that same look in our spouse’s eyes, our parents’ eyes, our friends’ eyes, our children’s eyes, our pets’ eyes, etc…

Reason #2 – We are afraid of rejection. We can’t stomach the idea that the person asking us may never ask us for anything else ever again. What if they have no use for us in the future and choose to never speak to us again? While it sounds absurd, this fear deep down inside each of us is very real.

When to say “No”

While each of those fears may be very real, there come significant times when we must face those fears head-on and say “no” anyway. Specifically, any of the following are reasons to say “no” to the request before you.

  • You are already “full” – you are at capacity and any slightest thing will push you over the edge. Those of you who remember the TV sitcom Seinfeld from the early 1990’s might remember the episode with George’s wallet bursting with everything imaginable. You, like George’s wallet, can’t take even the smallest scrap of extra work without coming apart at the seams.
  • The probability of failure is high – you can objectively step back and say to yourself, “why are they asking me? Don’t they know that I am not likely to do as good of a job as someone else?” This isn’t about low-self confidence. This is an honest assessment of what you are and aren’t good at. Sometimes the fact that we are good at putting out the fires blinds people to what we are actually good at. “Here Brandon, there is an IT server issue and we need your help.” I know myself well enough to say, without a doubt, a resounding “NO” to that request.
  • You don’t want to go down the career path associated with saying “yes” – perhaps saying “yes” will take you further down a career path you don’t want to go down. Yeah, you could solve that IT infrastructure problem, but they are never going to see you as the new client services manager until you eventually say “no” to your former duties.

While all of these situations seem obvious and fair on the surface, the real challenge comes when “leadership” comes to you (and only you) and says to you, “but you are the only one. And we need you today more than ever. Help us Obi Wan Kenobi, you are our only hope (o.k. I added the last part).” That is a very tough situation to say “no” to. Here’s how you take on saying “no” the right way.

Don’t make excuses

The most common way we say “no” is also the worst way possible. It often comprises of saying “no” and then following that statement with a long laundry list of all of the many reasons why we can’t do the thing we are being asked to do. For Example:

Boss: “Brandon, can you take on this new promising client in Anchorage, Alaska? We need you to fly out tomorrow.”

Brandon: “No, I’m sorry. I won’t be able to take that on. I’m already fully committed with my other work responsibilities. On top of that, my youngest is home following a tonsillectomy and I really need to be there, my in-laws are coming in town to stay with us for the next 3 months, my daughter has a dance recital on Thursday night, I’m having elective open-heart surgery on Friday, etc…”

Two unfortunate outcomes accompany this all-too-common approach. First, the boss stops listening after the first or second excuse. Second, we inadvertently set up a dynamic of inviting the boss to find fault in our logic. In essence we are saying, “Here are my arguments. If you can find fault in them, you win and I’ll do whatever you ask.” Not exactly the outcome we are looking for.

Saying “No” the right way

The best approach to saying “no” is simple. The opening 20% of the conversation should be “no” and a brief “why.” The remaining 80% of the conversation should consist of alternate solutions to help your boss (or whoever is asking) solve the problem without you. After all, when it comes right down to it, the person asking you for help has a fire on his or her hands. Their number one priority is to put the fire out. Ideally, the boss would like you to be the one to put out the fire and take on the problem. However, if you can find an alternate solution to the problem, you may not only benefit from helping your boss to solve the problem but also maintain your ground by successfully saying “no.” Consider the following revised conversation:

Boss: “Brandon, can you take on this new promising client in Anchorage, Alaska? We need you to fly out tomorrow.”

Brandon: “No, I’m sorry. I won’t be able to take that on. I’m already fully committed with my other work responsibilities and anything additional that I add could spell disaster for the other sensitive projects I’m managing. However, let’s spend a few minutes thinking about other possible people or solutions to your problem. For example, Susan has been looking for an opportunity just like this. Have you considered her? There may also be some virtual approaches which might also work.

In the end, one of the keys to maintaining successful work/life balance is know when and how to say “no.” Master that, and I promise you’ll get the best of both worlds – maintaining your reputation AND maintaining your sanity. And for those of you who haven’t seen George Costanza lose his mind when when his wallet reaches its limit, enjoy!