When and how to say no at work

I used to get asked for help multiple times per week every week at my old job. Stuff like reviewing blog posts, giving talks, writing internal memos, attending recruiting events, calling candidates (especially women), even mentoring new employees whom I’d never met. I was overwhelmed.

For a long time, I kept saying yes to everything because I wanted to look like a team player. But there were three major issues with my unwillingness to say no:

  1. I didn’t have enough time to focus on my own personal/career growth.
  2. Even if I managed to say no, it often took me over an hour to make my decision and figure out how to respond productively and nicely (because women have to be nice).
  3. I was taking up opportunities for growth and reputation-building that other folks would have loved to take on.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how I started holding myself accountable for saying no via my “no” tracker, the list of questions I asked myself in order to clarify my feelings more quickly, and how I kept conversations productive after saying no.

The “no” tracker

I told my manager how I felt about my time management and volunteer requests and we agreed that I’d start keeping track of every time someone asked me for a favor and how I felt about it. I wrote this tweet about my experiment in February 2020:

Every single time someone asked me to do something outside of my team’s technical work, I wrote it down in this document. I color-coded every single row based on how I felt about the outcome:

After two months, the sheet got pretty long and I started to see a pattern regarding the frequency and type of requests I was receiving. It also helped me confirm something I could only describe as an unsubstantiated feeling previously: I actually was receiving way more requests for my time than the average engineer. I figured this was a side effect of me being moderately well-known on tech Twitter and because of my existing reputation as an overly eager helpful person. Whatever the cause, it helped me understand that there was a real reason why I needed to change my habits – this problem was affecting my work hours a lot more than you might have imagined.

The tracker helped me build mindful habits by gamifying the process. I started getting excited about adding more and more rows and adding to my quilt of pretty “no” colors, so I got into the habit of opening the document whenever another request came in. The old version of me used to receive a request, think about it for a few seconds, and automatically say yes. The experimental version of me would receive a request, think, “oooh I get to add it to the list!”, and then realize I had to actually be mindful about whether to say yes or no. The post-experiment version of me today has a pretty well-tuned internal compass on what types of work matter the most to me and can make mindful decisions without the spreadsheet. I’d strongly recommend using a tracker of some kind if you need motivation to build your habits.

Questions to ask yourself before saying yes or no

These questions are probably the most important part of this whole blog post:

  1. How would I feel if I said yes to this request and it led to me not having time for an important request in the future?
  2. Is it possible for me to suggest someone who could grow from taking on this opportunity or is better-suited for it?
  3. Do I genuinely think this is high-value work? Would it matter if no one did it?
  4. Do I want to do it?
  5. Does this help me grow a skill I want to have?
  6. Is this how I want to spend my non-core hours this week? (Note: “non-core” was a shorthand for “any work I do for my job that doesn’t contribute to my team’s product roadmap”.)
  7. Am I okay with this work competing with my other goal of being an independent member of my new team?
  8. Could I glue-work roll for it? (Note: “glue-work” is a reference to Tanya Reilly’s “Being Glue” blog post; my team at the time had a tool for picking random team members in case you needed to pick someone, but didn’t want to lean too much on the same person every time.)

(If these questions look familiar, it’s because I tweeted them before.)

These questions cover all of the major reasons I could think of for why it might be wiser for me to say no to something even if I had the bandwidth to say yes:

  • I want to save time for future me
  • I want to sponsor others and give others opportunities for growth
  • I want to work on tasks that actually matter
  • I want to know when to prioritize myself
  • I want to work on a team that has a culture of fairly sharing unglamorous work

In one case, I was asked to speak at an event for my employer and I started dutifully filling out my spreadsheet. But when I got to question #4, “Do I want to do it?”, I paused and realized I couldn’t say yes. My question list made me realize I wasn’t listening to my own interests and was over-prioritizing other people’s requests.

In another case, shortly after the George Floyd protests of summer 2020, my employer asked for volunteers to help review policies related to diversity, inclusion, and racial equality. When I started thinking through my list of questions, I wrote, “I said no to things in the past so that I could have space for times like this” and I was able to acknowledge that even if this volunteer work didn’t contribute to my professional goals, I genuinely wanted to do it and was okay making the tradeoff. This situation felt like a real win for me being able to point at a situation where I needed to say yes and I had set myself up to be able to say yes without scrambling.

How to say no but still be cool

I only have two major pieces of advice here, so I’ll keep this section brief.

First of all, if you’re talking to a manager, they will love you if you stop saying “nah I can’t do that” and start saying “I have X and Y on my plate right now and I think I could do Z for you if you and my manager think I should drop Y for it. What do you think has higher priority?” By phrasing your “no” this way, you’re setting up the conversation for a collaborative tone, you’re recognizing that everything can be traded off, and you’re helping the requester understand what levers they have to work with.

Second, keep the goals of your colleagues in the back of your mind. If you already have some background knowledge on who wants to practice public speaking or who wants to demonstrate mentorship for their next promo packet, etc, you’ll find it a lot easier to respond to requests by floating their names (with their permission) instead of yourself.

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