The Power of “No”

The Power of “No”

‘Tis the season for burnout. Ah, yes, September is upon us. The summer holidays are behind us and schools are back in session, including sports practices, band practices, PTA meetings, and yellow buses joining our commute. The fourth quarter is staring us down, along with all the commitments and goals we made for the year. Daylight is waning, but the to-do lists are growing. Have you planned your Halloween costume yet? How about Thanksgiving dinner? They’re right around the corner, you know.

Autumn has always been a busy season for us homo sapiens. It’s historically been our last chance to accumulate sustenance before we supposedly settle down for a winter of hibernation and rest. Yet in today’s post-industrial, digitally connected, and meticulously scheduled world, we don’t actually get much of a winter hibernation. Our very interconnectedness allows us endless access to opportunities for involvement, community engagement, projects and activities, whether for work, pleasure, growth or impact. Add to that a constant stream of digital media vying for our attention and dopamine, and we’ve got a recipe for burnout.

The Why

Our time is exquisitely precious. It is one of our few truly non-renewable resources: absolutely finite and increasingly scarce. Unlike money or belongings or even social capital, our minutes on this earth cannot be replenished. (The relativity nerds may take umbrage with this assertion, but I’m assuming none of us are approaching the speed of light during our travels.)

It may feel overwhelming knowing that we have more to do than time to do it, but allow me to offer a reframing. Instead, we can rest assured that, as mortals at the mercy of physics, we cannot do it all. Some stuff will not get done. With that understanding, we can instead be intentional about how we spend our time and our energy.

This is no small task. We are not operating in a vacuum. Women are socialized to do more emotional labor. We are encouraged to take on non-promotable tasks in the workplace. From a young age, many of us are taught to prioritize communal well-being over personal well-being. Take a quick look at the shelves of any toy department, and we’ll see those messages of caretaking and cooperation emerging early in activities and playthings geared toward young girls. Many times, women are punished for setting boundaries. They may be seen as being selfish or difficult and labeled “not a team player.” It’s understandable that we try to accommodate, relying on superhuman feats of endurance and agility to keep all the plates spinning. Yet this tendency to say “yes” ends up leading to feelings of resentment and burnout. We find ourselves acting from a place of obligation and burden, even when we may have felt enthusiastic or joyful in the beginning.

What Do We Do About It?

Like any budgeting or decluttering exercise, we must examine this from a few angles. In this two-part article, I’ll offer a three-column framework (as consultants are wont to do):

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

For the engineer types in the audience, we can look at this as a volume equation, but instead of treating our commitments like compressible fluids that we just continue to pack in while the temperature and pressure steadily rise, we could try to keep a more sustainable balance. Perhaps, we could even maintain some headroom for unplanned emergencies or opportunities. What luxury!

The first step is instituting a “less yes” approach (at least to others, so we can say “yes” to ourselves more often). This means knowing when and how to say “no.” What are your selection criteria for adding a voluntary commitment to your plate? In the Reliability and Maintenance discipline, new activities are often accompanied by a “management of change” process which includes knock-on effects, resource requirements, and prioritization amongst existing activities. For many of us, joining a new committee or taking on a new activity gets as little scrutiny as a shrug and a “Sure. We’ll figure it out.” Unless you are the rare unicorn who finds themselves bored and at a loss for things to do, chances are your new commitment will need to fit in among an already busy schedule.

So, what’s coming off your plate? If the answer is “nothing,” then which existing activities will you borrow time from in order to commit to this new one? When the answer is similarly “none,” then the most likely bucket to draw from will be your unscheduled downtime or rest. And let’s not discount the value of downtime. We talk about self-care quite extensively, but I prefer to view activities as input or output. Reading, walking, and playtime with children or pets are all examples of activities that can nurture our creativity, fill our cups, and remind us of what’s most important in life. That being said, rest for the sake of rest is valuable in and of itself, and we deserve it. We are humans who deserve to rest. Without guilt. Without shame. Without the feeling that we are stealing time from our productive efforts. (If this concept sounds anathema to you, it may be time to check out the transformative work of Tricia Hersey and The Nap Ministry).

The Power of “No”

How do we decide what to say “yes” to? We start with our values. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is most important to me in life?
  2. Which of my key values does this activity align with? Which does it conflict with?
  3. What am I hoping to get from this experience?
  4. What does a good outcome look like? Is that a likely scenario?

As you become more discerning about which activities you agree to, one challenge may be estimating the time and energy entailed. Have you been pretty accurate in gauging this in the past? Is the group or organization clear about its expectations? Do they seem to respect the boundaries of their current participants? When guilt or shame is used to motivate your participation in the first place, that’s an immediate red flag and you can expect that dynamic to continue. A “yes” extracted under duress is never a good starting point.

The Hard Part

“Okay, okay, Erica! I want to say “no” more often, but I don’t know how!”

First of all, if you find yourself tempted to acquiesce when you truly want to decline, try being curious with yourself. What’s underneath this inclination? Is it based on feelings of obligation or duty? Is it to avoid the discomfort, disappointment or conflict that comes with a “no”? Is it a fear of missing out on opportunities or connections?

It’s important to come to terms with these feelings and give them the credence they deserve, and then decide how to mitigate or accept them. Our tendency to say “yes” is not irrational; it’s also not necessarily effective or sustainable. Saying “no” can be uncomfortable, but in the wise words of Brené Brown, we should “choose discomfort over resentment.”

We can also change our framing around the word “no.” It is not an inherently unkind word. As Brown mentions in her book Atlas of the Heart, “Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy.” A thoughtful “no” is oftentimes more altruistic and respectful than a coerced or resentful “yes.”

Unfortunately, we still exist in a world that is not used to hearing “no” from women. Even women aren’t used to hearing “no” from other women. If you find yourself faced with these biases, you can oftentimes mitigate them by explaining your “no” in terms of the communal good. Should you have to? No. Of course not. But we’re focused on being effective here, and the reality is that a woman who sets a boundary to protect the well-being of others is often met with less hostility and resistance than a woman who is protecting her own interests.

This might look different for each person and each scenario.

“I’ve made a commitment to be more present during family time, so I’m not able to take on additional volunteer projects right now.”

“When I’m oversubscribed, the quality of my work across all my projects starts to suffer, so I’ll need to pass on this opportunity.”

“I know if I take this on, I’ll be tempted to invest more time than I can afford, and I’ll end up being stressed out. It’s not good for anyone if that happens.”

Side note: If you feel that you can safely give a good, firm “no” without any justification or explanation and without risking harm, then I absolutely encourage you to do so! You can help normalize “no” for the rest of us and move us toward a future where we’re all happily, healthily, and unapologetically asserting boundaries.

In Part II, we’ll explore the second and third columns of the framework. We’ll discuss when and how to bring existing commitments and activities to a close. We’ll also look at how we can change our relationships to existing commitments that we cannot extricate from to help minimize resentment and the likelihood of burnout.

In the meantime, remember: “Less yes” to others means more “yes” to you!

Author profile
Erica D’eramo

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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