During my last performance review, I got some surprising feedback. My closest partners viewed me as effective, but they thought I was spread across too many streams of work to impact any of them. This was a problem—one I needed to fix right away.
The culprit? I said “yes” way too frequently. If my boss had a new project, I was always the first volunteer. If there was a task force to fix some random, non-work-critical problem, I got involved (unless I was already leading said task force, of course).
I thought these opportunities would grow my skills and reputation. Instead, I learned too late that their downside was more than just extra work or a sleepless night. So, I had to get comfortable using a word that was unfamiliar to me: “no.” Here’s why you need to do this too:
Without Priorities, Work Quality Suffers
One of the best career lessons I’ve learned in the last year is also one of the most rudimentary. You can choose to be a master of a few things or a jack-of-all-trades: dipping your toes into a bunch of things but never truly mastering any of them.
Being a “yes” person automatically makes you the jack-of-all-trades. There’s no way you can avoid it, really. You’ll inevitably spread yourself thin across a bunch of different efforts. And it will be very hard for you to deliver high-quality results in any of them.
So, I started turning things down. I pushed obscure task forces, little favors, and other random efforts off my radar. They weren’t priorities for my main job duties so I said no. Did it suck to see the sphere of what I worked on scoped down so ruthlessly? Yes. But I quickly discovered another benefit to my new work philosophy.
“No” Prevents Burnout
I didn’t realize how burned out I was until I had a day with no meetings. I honestly didn’t know what to do with myself. Did I really just get to sit down and focus on my work? That seemed … wrong somehow.
But it wasn’t wrong. It was what I needed to produce high-quality work. I had just learned to adapt to a fast-paced, “busy busy” work style because I hadn’t really known anything else since high school.
I found myself able to deliver great work and, more importantly, to actually take breathers and do mindfulness checks in between. I may have been using a negative word more, but the effects on my mental health and workload were only positive.
Get Comfortable With “No”
If I had to give one piece of advice to young, budding overachievers out there (I know many are reading this blog), it would be to get comfortable saying “no” early in your careers.
It is OK to turn down work projects, friends, plans, activities, or really anything that you don’t think will be fruitful to your personal or professional goals. In fact, as you get more established, you’re expected to be able to do this well.
It takes skill to know which things will make an impact and which will not. The sooner you can master this skill, the better off you’ll be. People will never stop asking more of you, so you’ll have to learn how to protect your own time and priorities.
Trust me: Saying “no” is awkward as hell at first, but it gets easier each time. I’ve had success being as transparent as possible. “I see the value in doing this thing, x, but I need to focus on things y and z right now. Can this wait?” If you position the conversation in a way that’s honest and leaves feelings out of the picture, it’s hard for somebody to hold it against you!
While you should always seek new, different opportunities to grow and experience new things, remember that being a “no” person actually isn’t so bad.