As 2021 closes, I think of the noes I’ve used this year and remember the times I’ve said no at work – and how difficult it was. I overheard a Latinx person saying they also experienced the same inability to say “no” because immigrants have to say “yes” to work.
As a Latina/Boricua, who grew up in poverty, we never said “no” to work. If there is a job, you take it! I took a part-time job at age 14 and I’d been babysitting and stuffing CD cases since I was 12 or 13. Plus, my mom and I volunteered at a crisis hotline. I’ve never not been busy!
I know I’m not alone here and many of you struggle with saying “no”. It’s not just a Latina thing or a poor person thing. We all struggle with it for a lot of different reasons, ranging from people-pleasing to suffering imposter syndrome.
There’s even a Facebook group devoted to the act of saying “no” to work, where people celebrate the act of saying “no” and encourage each other to say “no” more often — it’s composed of 700+ professionals!!
But I certainly don’t want to be playing the Diner Dash of life… where everyone takes a piece of my time so that I no longer feel like I’m the engine driving forward. In the backseat of life!
I’ve learned that by saying “no”, I am saying “yes” to myself. I’ve learned to prioritise myself!
This year, I’ve said “no” to two jobs that I knew were not right for me. One, I said no because they were just as toxic as the job I left. Two, I said no because they were not offers aimed at my current level of leadership. They offered less seniority (and pay) than I am worth. As an entrepreneur and a thought leader, I have held fast to my values to create change in organisations. I can’t do that when my decision-making power is shackled.
It’s an important lesson, having experienced burnout and exploitation, to know what I want to spend my time on now, and to be able to say “yes”.
I can now see opportunities to say “yes” to since I’ve let go of the threats that I perceived from saying “no”. Whether they were real threats or not.
Your time and attention can be an important marker of the relative importance you place on work.
Having spent much of my time working, I know that work took priority in my life. That was by design. I wanted to be a senior leader at all of my jobs, from administrative assistant to sales clerk to food service worker… In academia, I wanted to be a Professor.
But being a leader was not enough.
To get those promotions, I had to give up some of myself, some of my time with family or time spent volunteering to change systems. I said it was temporary that I was spending time giving work what they said they needed from me, but it was a lie I fed myself and my family. I missed my child’s firsts as I worked overtime. I was racked by shame and guilt, but this ambition to make my managers happy was born in capitalism and also within my fear of returning to poverty.
In the book, Work Won’t Love You Back by Sarah Jaffe, she says of early labor days in history there is “…no pretense that such work was enjoyable: the choice was to do it or starve.” This is particularly true, since the US’s safety net is pretty non-existent.
At some point, I realised that I needed to prioritise my values because, truly, work won’t love me back. As Jaffe mentions,
The new labor-of-love myth was bolstered by the idea that … a job constituted empowerment.
Liberation via labor is a lie.
The idea that one can have it all – the job and the family – without sacrifice is a myth. We can see that now, especially in the light of day of lockdowns and new work-from-home mandates for staff who had never worked from home before.
It was difficult to step back and look at what my attention and time were feeding, but I’m glad I did. I looked at my calendar and I started to populate it with things I care about, like community engagement, social justice work, but also dancing, reading, travel, and family activities. I’ve also been in therapy.
I have learned to be more present for my life moments, rather than just trying to fill up my time with productivity.
So, what did this mean for me day to day when, as a leader, I was asked to take on more work?
Well, I have some tips that I want to share with you:
If you find it hard to say “no” when asked to take on more work, buy yourself some time by saying “I’ll bring that up in my next meeting with my line manager so we can see if it lines up with my current priorities” or “I would really like to do X, but I have to see whether I can give it the attention it deserves right now. Let me get back to you.”
So, you’ve stated that you’re interested, that you know it deserves a good amount of attention, but you’ve also stated that you need to see if you can devote that focus given your current priorities.
Buying time means that you can assess the following:
- Do you have time to devote to it?
- Does it fit with your values and long-term goals?
- Do you have the resources to get it done?
- Do you have the skills – how long will it take to get up to speed and/or can you get it done quickly?
- Is it worth it to add to your resume? If you already have done work similar to it, it may not be worth your while to add that particular skill to your resume. But if it likely gains you favour at work, then maybe consider it (given the above considerations).
If you do decide to say “yes” then the above considerations can serve as boundaries/conditions for you taking on the work.
- You can ask for team members or resources you need to get it done. You can ask for time in your workload or dropping something else in your workload. You can ask for training, if needed.
- Or you can ask to delay the work until later, if you really want to devote yourself to the work, but currently don’t have capacity. You can also delegate the work to someone on your team who you think might benefit.
Or the time you took to consider the above could lead you to say “no”! Either way, you would have bought time to craft your “no” in a way that your “no” will be accepted by your boss. How you decline can take time to plan or script!
I mentioned having and maintaining boundaries, which my clients have told me is really hard because they either hate conflict or want to please people, or feel a sense of responsibility for others at work so they take on a perceived fair share of work.
Boundaries are difficult but are key to maintaining your wellbeing and avoiding burnout.
See this YouTube video about boundaries, which I found really useful.
Many people find it easy to set boundaries but they find it hard to maintain their boundaries. That’s how you get in the position where you don’t own your own time (see my free Own Your Own Time workbook, if you haven’t already).
Mostly, people find it difficult to protect and defend their boundaries, often in service of avoiding a confrontation with their team. I get it!
As an only child for essentially the first 16 years of my childhood, I didn’t really learn how to fight for what’s mine because I didn’t have to. I also used to introduce myself to new kids on the playground by saying my name was “Friendly”! I really really wanted people to like me.
If you’re a person who doesn’t stick to your boundaries, people won’t respect you. Your relationships with colleagues are actually stronger if you maintain and protect your boundaries. It seems counterintuitive, I know.
Your team will also feel psychologically safer at work if you model how to maintain your boundaries at work. You will also probably treat people more fairly, since you won’t be bowled over by one particularly dominant member of your team.
Do spend some time reflecting on when (where, with whom) you tend to let your boundaries down. It’s useful to know yourself and why you might find some boundaries easier to keep than others.
Working on yourself is worth it
In Spanish, we say “vale la pena” which literally translates to “worth the pain”. Yes, doing the work of introspection is painful but your ultimate wellbeing is worth the pain of putting the spotlight of attention on yourself and finding out who you really are.
So, I’ve discussed paying attention to some issues:
- Your time-use across your day (work, home, hobbies, interests, social priorities), and whether you are spending time on the things you value.
- Your time-use at work, and whether you are spending time on the things that will keep you on the career trajectory you value.
- When and why your boundaries might bend or falter.
Reviewing these has been useful for me in maintaining my wellbeing while also feeling like I’m making a difference in my community but also at work.
This year, I’ve come to the conclusion that what I value most is making a difference to the opportunities young people have in education and in employment. I’ve made time for going on climate change protests, union protests, but I’ve also mentored a young Black girl (with whom I love to speak Spanish/Portuguese), such that she is now in college in pursuit of being a medical doctor. I’ve also led in creating STEM curriculum templates for The Black Curriculum, essentially steering diversity and inclusion for primary and secondary education.
I love that I’m able to spend time working on myself and on things that mean I have a value-based living. What changes can you make to your time expenditure to ensure your life choices and how you spend your time align with your values? I hope you find a way to say “yes” to you!
Why are you not a priority?
One last thing I’ll leave you with…
Why are you not your first priority or at least in the top two after family or cat or alpaca or whoever your lovely human or pet is?
If you feel bad about prioritising yourself, ask yourself why. Start to reflect on that and where it comes from, because you won’t maintain your boundaries if you lack self-confidence. Reflect on why you’re willing to do things that do not align with your values.
I mean, I said no when I was 14 and was asked to cold-call people out of the white pages to ask if they needed their chimneys swept! Instead, my mother was volunteering at a crisis hotline and she knew someone looking for an assistant. So, she got me a job with the National Audubon Society, which aligned with my values much better. Even small networks can sometimes be useful; you’d be surprised! But don’t settle! You can be authentic.