One of the hardest words to say or hear is often, “No.” As Jason Fried recently noted (click here to read Jason’s article), the truth is, often times we do have the time to fulfill a request, but we don’t have the attention, which is in fact a much more limited resource. Jason recounts an experience where he should have realized the limits of his attention, but instead focused on his available time and therefore disappointed both the person making the request and ultimately himself.
Jason’s experience made me think of a recent encounter I had from the other side – I had made a request of a very busy person. His story caused me to think again about what resulted from the perspective of the requestor and the requestee, drawing lessons for the future from both angles.
For some time, I had a particular author in mind as my top choice for the foreword to my book. Her work was instrumental to my own transformation and I would have been thrilled to have her contribute to what I hoped would be equally useful work for my own audience. So I actually booked a flight to where this author was going to be signing her book in order to get in front of her and make a great, lasting impression. After a brief but positive conversation, she agreed to read my book, so I sent her a manuscript.
Fast forward to the deadline from my publisher for getting everything finalized, including the foreword, and I still hadn’t heard back from her. When I reached out again, she said she still hadn’t read my book and requested that I resend it, which I did, but I admit I was worried since so much time had already passed. I got an extension on my deadline in order to give her more time to read the book and write the foreword. Nonetheless, the new deadline approached and I still hadn’t heard back from her. When I contacted her again, I received the email I had been dreading: “I’m sorry, but I have my own book deadlines right now. I read everything before I put my name on it, and I simply don’t have the time.’” I was devastated!
Simultaneously, I had reached out via email to another favorite author for an endorsement of my book, despite the fact that I had never met him and never spent any time or resources to foster a relationship. Nonetheless, he wrote me back right away to say that he loved the concept of my book, and would read it right away. Sure enough, a mere few days later, he wrote again with a beautiful and glowing endorsement suitable for publication.
This extremely positive and stress-free experience with the second author only served to shove my earlier experience into a more negative light by contrast. However, I want to stress that I was disappointed not only in the first author’s behavior, but in my own. Yes, she should have immediately been honest with herself and with me about the attention that she could commit to another request (zero), but I also realized my own actions were not based on realistic expectations or honest readings of her behavior. I did not hedge my bets, did not read her reactions (or lack thereof) to me, and allowed her total control over my emotions and ultimately disappointment.
Like most readers, I will repeatedly find myself in both positions in the future – that of the person making a request and that of a person of whom a request is made. When making a request, I will remind myself to have realistic expectations of a person’s ability to commit time, and most importantly, attention, to my request, and I will have a back-up plan (or, ideally, plans). I will not continue to throw good time, attention, and energy after bad once it is clear that the person from whom I requested the favor is not going to be able to fulfill it. On the other side, when a request is made of me, I will be honest with myself about whether I am able AND willing to commit my attention to the request, and if the answer is no, then I will quickly make it clear to the requester so that they can move on to their own back-up plans.
Here’s an excerpt from my book that talks about how important it is to say “NO”, whether to yourself or others, if it means taking away too much attention and/or focus from our main goals:
If you want to take back control of your workday schedules and priorities, the only way to do it is by relentlessly questioning how you’re spending your time. I always like to start with this question: What are you doing in this moment?
The simple act of becoming more aware of where your attention is going will help you focus it where you want it to be—on achieving your compelling goals. Too often we get distracted or get caught up in unimportant tasks that end up wrecking our day and derailing our to-do lists. The ways you feel about the tasks you hate doing are big, red flags that encourage you to find a way to pass those unpleasantries on to someone or something (like a system) that can tackle them for you. But first, you’ve gotta figure out exactly what’s making you crazy in the first place.
The first honest question you must ask yourself is “How am I using my time?” We must be cognizant of how we portion our time, use our time effectively, and with whom we choose to spend that precious time. Only then will we feel a sense of control. Strength is not just physical; it is mental, too. By following these time management recommendations, you’ll be on your way to feeling stronger, more in control, and less uneasy throughout your day.