The Power of No – Part II

The Power of No – Part II

The fourth quarter is in full swing and the end of the year is within sight. This is an excellent time to take stock of where our time and energy are currently being invested as we look ahead to 2024. In Part I, we discussed the importance of setting boundaries around our commitments to ward off burnout and, importantly, to be more present and joyful in the activities that we do take on. I introduced a basic framework:

  1. Less adding,
  2. More subtracting, and
  3. Making the most of what’s retained.

We started with some tools and tactics to stop adding things to our plates. This involved getting very clear about our motivations for taking on commitments and a clear-eyed view of our priorities. I have some good and bad news regarding the second two columns of the framework. The good news is that we’ll leverage some of these same practices around exploring our “why” and getting clear on what’s most important. The bad news is that it’s often easier to “not start” doing something new than it is to stop doing something you’ve already started. Maintaining the status quo tends to cause the least interpersonal disruptions.

In Part II, we’ll explore when and how to bring existing commitments and activities to a close. Next, we’ll examine how we can change our relationships with the commitments we’ve chosen to retain in order to minimize resentment and the likelihood of burnout.

If you’re currently feeling overwhelmed and beginning to feel resentful or sense that burnout is on the rise, it’s time to make an intervention. The first step of this process is establishing a proper understanding of everything that you currently have on your plate. This doesn’t just include volunteer committees or so-called “extra-curricular” items. It includes all the things that end up on your calendar and on your to-do lists, as well as the stuff you’d feel sad about missing. Food shopping and meal planning, veterinary visits, yoga classes, pickleball tournaments, book clubs, homework help, carpool duty for soccer practice, heck, even Wordle should go on the list, if it’s something you like to do each day.

Looking at your work activities, start to jot down all the day-to-day tasks that you are consistently juggling, as well as the above-and-beyond activities such as mentoring circles, Business resource groups (BRGs), morale task forces, food drive coordination, birthday luncheon planning, etc. Tracking where you spend your time in 15-minute increments over the span of a week can be quite illuminating. Chances are, you’ve got more proverbial balls in the air than you’re giving yourself credit for.

We know that women tend to carry a disproportionate share of caretaking and coordination responsibilities both in the family sphere as well as in the workplace, as a recent Time article explored in depth. We also know that for many of us recovering over-achievers or people-pleasers, we may struggle to limit our contribution to “just good enough,” wanting to do our best in each activity we commit to. These factors contribute to the sheer quantity of time and effort that’s invested in trying to keep all the moving parts in working order.

When is the right time to start pulling the plug on commitments, which ones get the boot? The right time is probably earlier than you think. Ideally, it’s before you start feeling resentment and frustration or before things begin to go off the rails. As you look through your laundry list of ongoing activities, it’s again time to examine our “whys.” It’s also helpful to remember that our motivations for various commitments change over time. Perhaps you’ve signed up for the book club looking for some intellectual stimulation, but now stay for the sisterhood. Sometimes, we agree to activities based on an intended impact, and that impact fails to materialize. For example, you may have joined a networking group, but you aren’t gaining as much connection as you had hoped for.

In other cases, the activity might deliver the intended impact, but it’s dropped in relative priority, such as the herb garden that you swore you’d keep up with this year. There may even be cases in which you agreed despite not actually wanting to in the first place in order to avoid conflict. In all cases, we’re making a continued investment, and we should understand whether it is delivering a sufficient return.

The Power of No – Part II

As you scan your list and understand your “whys,” you can start to identify some key candidates for removal among the so-called optional activities. Common red flags include “because I said I would,” and “because I feel like I should.” To what extent are you doing some of these activities because of how you want to be perceived as opposed to what you want to accomplish? When our primary goal is to avoid letting other people down, it’s worth reflecting on how critical our participation truly is. Oftentimes, it’s a humbling but accurate reality that the show will go on without us. Sometimes, we’re the only ones judging ourselves for failing to follow through. I promise you that the world will go on if you break your Duolingo streak or miss the Pilates class.

Our society places a disproportionate moral value on finishing what we start, and I personally reject that narrative. We receive enough persuasion from our natural sunk-cost bias; we don’t need guilt on top of it. As Annie Duke explains eloquently in her book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away, mastering the skill of walking away can be a key to long-term success. If you take pride in being a person who “never gives up,” then it may be worth interrogating what the inherent value is in continuing to invest resources in a venture that is not delivering a return. That’s not to say that fortitude doesn’t have its rewards, and the potential prize may be worth the endurance. However, we too often stick with jobs, commitments and even people far longer than we should out of a misplaced sense of duty, obligation or martyrdom.

With that understanding, we can approach our extrication in a collaborative way without the burden of guilt or shame. Before you tell yourself that you can’t step down or step away because you’ll disappoint people, just remember that heads of state and CEOs of multinational companies have decided to end their terms early. It’s reasonable to want to avoid leaving others in a lurch. For commitments made to other people, you can start with an open conversation about your existing limitations and your need to scale back and step away.

If you’d still like to stay involved but to a lesser extent, you can explore what those options could look like. Just make sure that your boundaries are clear to both yourself and those you’re working with. Perhaps there’s a transition period or a handover. You may even have a few ideas for candidates that would be a better fit.

If you start to detect guilt trips or resentment, remember that not everyone feels empowered to set boundaries and may not welcome others doing so. You can meet this reaction with compassion while also seeing it as an indication that you’ve made a decision to step away from a group or organizer that leverages guilt or shame as motivation.

Now we turn our sights on the commitments that remain, including some that may be causing resentment and burnout, and we get clear about why we’ve decided to keep them.

“But Erica, I kept them because they’re not optional.”

I would counter that literally everything is optional, and we are making an empowered choice by continuing in our commitments.

“I don’t have a choice about going to work.” Yes, you do. You could quit your job or stop showing up and get fired, but you’re being a responsible adult who is actively providing for your family or working toward your financial goals.

“I don’t have a choice about putting dinner on the table.” Yes, you do. You’re choosing to be a caring family member who nourishes their loved ones and keeps them fed.

Would the consequences of not doing either of those activities seem preposterously bad? Yes – that’s why we choose to do them, but we still have agency in choosing what type of person we are and where we invest our effort, even if it is to protect ourselves and our loved ones from very bad outcomes. When our activities are clearly tied to our values and identity, we can find much more congruence. If, however, we feel that we are complying simply out of a sense of obligation with no personal agency, it can take a toll on our well-being and lead to feelings of powerlessness.

You also get to decide how you engage with these commitments. It is not all-or-nothing. What can be outsourced? What can be simplified? What does “good enough” look like? In start-up speak, what’s your minimum viable product? As author Jamie Ducharme explains, there is a case to be made for mediocrity, and that case is sustainability.

For the activities that feel particularly draining yet remain important, you can also try to understand the source of the friction and identify any conflicts with your values. Common sources of friction can be a perceived lack of appreciation, a sense of unfairness, inefficiency or waste, etc. You may not be able to eliminate all the sources of friction, but you will have a better self-awareness and ability to voice your needs.

We are all living in a world in which there is too much to do and too little time to do it. When we can carve out additional space for the activities that bring us joy and align with our values, we are setting ourselves up for a more sustainable and impactful future.

Author profile

Engineer by trade. Diversity, equity and inclusion professional by choice. With a successful two decade career in the international energy industry, and having been one of the few women in her field, Erica D’Eramo has made it her life’s work to create diverse, inclusive and equitable workplaces through research, best practice and lived experiences. She is passionate about reconciling the academic perspective with practical application to enable organizations to elevate their DEI efforts and change the workplace landscape through those activities with the greatest impact. In 2016, D’Eramo founded Two Piers Consulting to support under-represented communities in the workforce, and provide companies with the tools and strategies to effectively create and grow truly diverse and inclusive workplaces. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Penn State University, and an Executive MBA from University of Texas at Austin.

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