Real Leaders

How to Stop Agreeing to Things You Don’t Want to Do

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It’s not just pathological “people pleasers” – at one time or another, almost all of us have found ourselves agreeing to do tasks we don’t want to do, whether it’s accepting a coffee invitation from an acquaintance or acquiescing when a colleague wants a favor.

Of course, there are times when an unpleasant activity is necessary. But often, we’re the culprits in maxing out our own schedules, because we’re too quick to agree to discretionary tasks that could have been declined with little or no consequence. 

In the moment, we might justify our decision as prosocial behavior and putting deposits in the “favor bank.” And a few stray requests likely won’t harm your overall productivity. But over time, these small “yeses” compound, and even an hour or two a week has serious opportunity costs. After all, time is finite and when you allocate it toward other people’s agenda, it prevents you from accomplishing your own. 

You can’t add water to a glass that’s already full, and if you want to have the bandwidth to pursue your own long-term goals, you’ll need to hone your skill at evading unnecessary tasks. In my book The Long Game: How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World, I lay out strategies for how to politely extricate ourselves from others’ requests and expectations, and instead redirect that energy toward higher and better uses. Here are three you can employ right away. 

Reject middling opportunities

Most experienced leaders are pretty good at saying no to terrible offers (“Could you copyedit my dissertation for free, by Thursday?”). We’re also smart enough to snap up great offers when they come around (“How’d you like to land a six-figure deal?”) 

The issue is primarily with middling opportunities, that have both good and bad aspects to them. It could be attending an event that seems tedious, but your friend invited you. Or speaking for free, but there might be useful contacts in the audience. Or doing an informational interview with someone’s cousin’s friend, because you might need a favor from them one day.

That’s where we get into trouble. Author and entrepreneur Derek Sivers suggests a helpful framework to cut through the justifications: if your gut reaction isn’t an enthusiastic “hell yeah,” then you should say no. In other words, anything less than a 9 out of 10, or even a 10 out of 10, becomes a ‘no.’ It may sound draconian, but it keeps you from clogging your schedule with sub-par choices, so you have room for truly great opportunities. 

Choose a lens

We’d all like to simultaneously earn a lot of money, spend tons of quality time with our family, have a robust health and wellness regimen, and more. And while all of that is possible to some extent, the truth is, it’s typically not all possible at once. We have to make tradeoffs – and it becomes essential to know what your top priority is. 

Terry Rice was an experienced digital marketer, and when he started his consulting business, he had a stroke of luck that almost any new entrepreneur would relish: “A client offered me a $20,000 a month retainer,” he recalls. But there was a catch. 

The new assignment would have required an hours-long commute. “The main reason I started my company was to spend more time with my family,” he says. “But with this opportunity, I would have rarely seen my daughter. Beyond that, I wasn’t super enthused about the project I would have been working on. And given the time constraints, I wouldn’t have been able to work on other projects I was passionate about.”

Terry did something that more of us should: he identified the key values he wanted to use in evaluating opportunities. In his case, it wasn’t money (if it were, he would have said yes instantly). Instead, he prioritized time with his family, and the ability to work on interesting projects. That enabled him to cultivate the resolve necessary to stand firm. “The same company kept reaching out to me for a year,” he says. “It was sometimes challenging to say ‘no,’ especially during the slow months, but I’m glad I continued to turn down the opportunity.” 

Respond quickly. 

For many of us, it’s easy to say no to a request we literally can’t do (“Sorry I have to miss your birthday party – I’ll be in Spain!”). But it’s much harder – and more fraught with guilt – to reject an opportunity when we could manage it, but simply don’t want to. 

So we procrastinate, and the invitations linger in our inbox for days or weeks (sometimes even months), compounding the problem because now we need to apologize not just for declining their request, but also our embarrassing delay in doing so. As a result, we oftentimes cave in and agree, as expiation for making them wait so long – the ultimate counterproductive strategy. 

Despite the emotional challenge – nobody likes to disappoint others or potentially hurt their feelings – if you’re going to say no, it’s a far better strategy to do it quickly so you don’t get their hopes up (“She’s probably strategizing to find a way to make it work!”) or insult them (“I’m obviously not very important if he’s making me wait three weeks for a response”). 

Instead, we need to rip off the bandage – for instance, you could say, “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this! It sounds like a great opportunity but I’m afraid I’m not able to join you. Sending best wishes!” Of course, they likely would have preferred a “yes.” But very few people will hold a prompt and polite “no” against you. 

If we stand any chance at taking control of our schedule and leveraging it to accomplish our most important long-term goals, we have to get better at saying no to things we don’t really want to do. These strategies can help. 

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