Learning To Say No

Today I tweeted something that seemed to resonate with others. This was the tweet, with an embedded quote from this post (h/t Joel):

This was the quote:

“You can only go so fast for so long. You have natural output limitations. Other people rarely consider that when they ask for stuff and set deadlines. In fact, they rarely consider anything. Most times, I find the expectations that other people have around time are arbitrary. They don’t *really* need that thing right now–and if you gave it to them tomorrow, the world will go on.

Don’t be afraid to say, “It’s not going to happen by that time. Here’s when I can have it for you.”

There’s really no way to argue against that. If you draw lines and say no, they’re just going to have to figure out an alternative and accept. “

Learning To Say No

A few years ago, I was way overstretched. I was nearing burnout because I was working fulltime at Distilled, juggling 2-3-4 freelance clients at a time, and traveling frequently to speak and visit clients. During that I was dating (and eventually met my wife) and also trying to spend as much time as possible with my friends and enjoying Brooklyn where I lived.

I made a choice then. I had to learn to say no. I could no longer justify spending every other weekend doing freelance work when a) it wasn’t making me that much money anyways, b) I was losing the interest in doing link cleanup which is what so many SEO clients needed then (and now), and c) I was tired of consulting. I needed a break, so I started learning how to say no.

First I made the decision to stop freelancing. I told all of my clients, even the ones paying me the best, that I wouldn’t be looking to renew their contract once it was up and that I wouldn’t even if they asked. If they asked, I would help them find a new consultant who could continue my work, but I was done consulting. (This also led me to found Credo).

Second, I started saying no to some felt obligations that were really “obligations” because I could put them off. I traveled less. I blogged less. I did fewer Meetups. I started giving myself permission to help those places that asked me to speak/write/etc find someone who else who, honestly, I felt could do a better job for them anyways.

I was learning to say no which started to set me up for success (and sanity) later.

When You Can’t Say No

Sometimes you can’t say no. Either it’s your boss who asks you to do something specifically, or it’s your spouse or your child or someone on your team, and you are the only one who can do it. That’s when the above quote becomes truly helpful.

This is when you learn to say:

“If you need something by (date), then I can get you X. Otherwise I can get you what you need by (date).”

I live and die by my calendar. I normally have 3-5 meetings in a day, and some days like today I was literally scheduled in meetings from 9am-430pm (two were cancelled at the very end of the day). I then said no to one at 430 that two on my team could easily handle themselves. In between all this I was asked for something from another team within the Zillow family, something that I am keen to do and will do, but that honestly falls lower in the priority queue for me than a lot of other things.

So I checked my calendar and told the person “I can get that for you, but honestly I will have zero time to work on it until Thursday.” They said that’s fine. I walked away relieved.

Asking For Things

Sometimes we are in the other camp where we are the one asking for things. I’ve been told time and time again that “You get to pick one – what gets done or when it gets done if it’s being done by someone else.”

No matter where you work, you’ll need something from others. If you’re a manager, you must get good at this otherwise you will stress out your team and the important things will not get worked on. I’ve learned this the hard way this year as we’ve organized ourselves internally at HotPads, as I learned I was stressing people out instead of being helpful. I had to learn to back off and ask questions instead of suggesting solutions (though I’m still guilty of that sometimes).

So remember, if it’s someone else doing the work:

“You get to pick one – what gets done or when it gets done.”

Have you picked up any tips along the way for saying no or asking for help and setting deadlines? I’d love to hear them.

5 thoughts on “Learning To Say No

  1. Great line at the end there. When you really care about your work, it always takes longer than you originally anticipate. You can never predict the ideas and insights that pop up in the middle of the project that ultimately make the final product great. Unfortunately, people who are most concerned with extremely quick turnaround don’t care as much about quality anyway.

  2. Hey John,
    Great post mate! You have a valid point. Such guidance is essential for online marketers and I agree that there is no shame in putting forward a realistic picture in front of the clients. It is more important to know your capacity than to please with unrealistic promises. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Learning to say no is like preparing to jump off a high cliff into water: really scary the first time, not knowing what will happen and stressing about the consequences, but once you do it’s a relief. But it also takes continual practice because it seems the longer you go without saying no, that bit of fear factor returns.

    I had a colleague who once told me, “There are 3 factors in deliverables and you can only pick 2: fast, cheap, or good. You can have it fast and good but it won’t be cheap. You can have it good and cheap, but it won’t be fast.” His rule has proven true many times over and your comment of having people decide essentially if they want a task completed the right way or if they want it by a certain time reminds me of that rule.

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