No More BS – Setting Solid Boundaries At Work
> We say “Yes” often to be liked and feel capable but it spreads us too thin
You’re working late - again.
This isn’t even your effing responsibility!
You said yes to helping out with the monthly report but it’s really got nothing to do with your role.
You thought it’d just be plugging a few numbers into an excel sheet once a week. Now, they’re asking for help like every freakin’ day.
Everyone throws extra work your way just because they know you’ll never say no. You’re like the go-to person at 4:45pm when something needs to get done and everyone else is halfway out the door.
Arrgh, you feel so annoyed not sticking up for yourself but hate confrontation and want people to like you.
You thought going the extra mile would help your boss notice your work but that totally hasn’t happened. He leaves at 5pm too!
So once again, you’re the sucker working late and behind on everything.
Ugh, we’ve been through this many more times than we would like to admit. We’ve been a yes person at work many times, when what we really wanted to say was, "Nope. Not my job. See ya later."
We feel stretched way too thin, run on an exhausting treadmill of to-dos (mostly crap for other people) and always feel behind the eight-ball.
Thankfully, there’s a simple answer to this problem.
It’s getting really good at saying no and setting clear boundaries at work.
This might sound like a big deal if you’re used to saying yes all the time, but with the tips in our article, it doesn’t have to be scary.
Plus, it’s totally worth any initial discomfort to push back on others and see your productivity soar and stress levels reduce in the long run. It’s a double bonus!
Why We Say Yes So Often
Saying yes is such a positive thing for progress and adventure.
Yes, let’s go sky-diving.
Yes, let’s eat that weird thing.
Yes, let’s have another drink.
Why do we say it so often? And what’s the reasoning behind it?
1) We Want To Be Liked
Being liked by others is a core fundamental emotional need. It cuts through everything else, especially when we’re new to a group or place.
Think back to your elementary or high school years. Remember, how immensely important it was that you were liked?
Your life depended upon belonging to a social group. If not, life as you knew it, was over.
And for many of us, this carried over into our adult lives to varying degrees.
So, many times we say yes when we really want to say no just because we want to be liked.
We want to be a team player that everyone can count on and get praise for doing a great job.
Most of us definitely don’t want colleagues complaining behind our backs saying we’re slacking off and not pulling our weight. Or, even worse, thinking we’re an uncooperative bitch or asshole.
So, we all want to be liked at the office - getting “thumbs-up” in the real world.
Likeability can also help us bag a promotion, even trumping skill in some cases. It makes sense then that the desire to be liked is a big driver in the workplace.
But going over-the-top and saying yes to anything and everything will actually result in a poorer workplace performance and a whole lot of stress.
2) We Underestimate What We’re Getting Into
How many times have you agreed to something and then, quickly find out that you’re waaay in over your head?
How often do tasks take much longer than you expected?
This is known as the planning fallacy. It’s the prediction phenomenon where we underestimate the time it will take to complete something despite knowing that previous tasks have usually taken longer than planned.
The customer support team asked if you can help out with updating their call list during their busy times.
How hard can it be to log a few calls into a report? It doesn’t seem like much so you think, “Sure I can fit that in” and then volunteer to take it on.
If you’re not familiar with the task, it’s even easier to underestimate the work involved.
Soon, you realize it’s taking way longer than you thought and they’re expecting your support every day.
Now, the head of customer service is asking where the monthly report is. Huh? What happened? This was only supposed to be small updates to the report on an occasional basis.
3) We Want To Prove We Can Do It All
Sometimes we say yes because we want to prove to ourselves and others that we can do it all.
Or, maybe that we don’t trust others to do it the way we’d want the work to be done.
This is especially true for working moms out there who are juggling not only work commitments but also family schedules too. Research has shown saying no is a more difficult decision and has a greater impact on women than men.
Many working moms are battling the Superwoman Syndrome, always striving to achieve everything perfectly with the ever-expanding checklist in their brain leading to mental exhaustion.
They feel responsible for doing it all and overwhelmed in the process. Saying no or “I can’t take this on right now” is somehow admitting they’re not capable or a failure.
BTW, totally not true.
Why Saying No Is Good For Your Career and Stress Management
When we’ve over committed ourselves by saying yes to a million things we really don’t have time for, two things will inevitably happen.
The quality of our work suffers
Our stress levels skyrocket
Not a winning combination for a happy work environment.
Say No - To Improve The Quality Of Your Work
Research shows that the 40 hour work week is actually a bit of a myth, with most Americans regularly working 47 hours. It’s easy to rack up additional hours because we’ve said yes too often.
Overworked, tired and stretched too thin, the quality of our work takes a nosedive.
If your responsibilities include making judgement calls, a lot of interaction with colleagues and a high level of detail, exhaustion is going to make all of those things more difficult.
According to the Industrial Psychiatry Journal, the effect of workplace fatigue includes decreased motivation, reduced alertness, impaired concentration, problems remembering information and poor judgment.
We also default to extreme multitasking to juggle competing commitments and deadlines. Hate to break the news to you but multitasking isn’t a good game plan.
Splitting your focus between multiple projects at once leads to sloppy work, poor creativity and higher stress levels.
When you haven’t over-committed your schedule by saying yes to everything, you can focus on deep work or monotasking instead. Working in distraction-free concentration improves and pushes your cognitive capabilities.
Say No - For Less Stress At Work And At Home
Saying yes too often at work also causes stress to spread into our home life.
Staying back late to get all the extra work done means less time for personal commitments and family time.
Eventually, it feels like you’re drowning in an ocean of stress, unable to keep your head above water with all the things you “have to do” for everybody.
You might say yes to a client or your boss to keep them happy but you’re shuffling your own self-care and self-worth further down the chain.
What’s worse is when these people take your willingness to help for granted. Not only did you agree to do something you didn’t really want to do, but also the person you said yes to isn’t really fazed by all the juggling you’ve got to do to make it happen.
You’re left with a chaotic schedule and feeling resentful of the person you’re trying to help.
How To Say No At Work
The great news is saying no is in your control, it’s a skill you can re-learn and strengthen.
After all, every single one of us learned to say it as babies.
VIDEO: Charlotte: No no no
> Probably the world’s best practitioner of saying no
> First person ever to turn down a million bucks
> Proof that saying no can make you smile
You don’t have to be that go-to person, the one who gets dumped with the extra crap nobody else wants to do.
We’ve got some techniques to help you say no and set boundaries in a professional way that won’t get you fired, hated on and will actually increase the quality of your work.
Step #1: Consider The Request
Yelling “HELL NO!!!!” in your colleague’s face before they’ve even finished asking for help is not a good move.
Before saying flat-out no, find out what you can about the project and task in as much detail as possible.
The truth is, there will be some extra requests that may come your way that you’re actually pretty excited about getting involved with. However, enthusiasm will quickly turn into just another stressful deadline you’re committed to simply because you underestimated the time the task would take.
Also, consider who is asking. Your boss, a client or some pesky dude from customer service who always expects everyone else to pick up his slack?
Note - pesky dude from customer service is a flat out no.
Let them know you’ll get back to them in a day with an answer. That gives you time to assess your current workload and priorities.
A Few Things To Consider:
Are you familiar with the task? If it’s something you’ve never done before, it could end up being a huge time suck.
What’s in it for you in terms of learning and development opportunities?
When is the expected deadline?
What current projects would need to be put on the backburner to focus on this task?
Everything can’t be number #1 and getting clear on the real priorities of your workload will help you figure out what additional work you can take on.
If it's not part of your specific job responsibilities and priorities, say no and don't take it on.
Step #2: Clearly Decline By Saying No
If you’ve decided the request isn’t something you want to take on, it’s time to say no.
The key here is to be clear and concise. Don’t use the words “maybe” or “I’ll try” and share a credible reason for declining. These kinds of weak answers will only open up the possibility of you ending up with the task.
Below are some examples of how you can clearly and professionally say no to extra work:
“I’m sorry, but I can’t help out on this. I’m fully booked up right now.”
“Based on what you’ve shared, I don’t have the capacity to take this on.”
“Looking at the meeting agenda, it doesn’t seem like I’d be needed at the table. Thanks for thinking of me but I’ll pass.”
“I’d be happy to help but let’s take a look at my current priorities. What can be put on the back-burner or cancelled so I have time to dedicate to this?”
“Thanks, but I’m not the right person for this project. I can take a few minutes now to help you figure out who best to direct it to.”
“Unfortunately, given my current workload and the time frame you’re asking for, I wouldn’t be able to deliver the work to a quality standard and my other work would suffer.”
“Thanks for thinking of me. The project sounds interesting but this week my priorities are projects X, Y and Z.”
Step #3: End The Conversation Firmly
Once you’ve declined to help, thank your co-worker firmly for understanding that you can’t give them a hand this time.
Wrapping up the conversation with “Thanks for understanding” closes the door for any further back and forth on the subject. There’s no need to go overboard with the apologies either.
It’s times like these the saying “Give an inch and they’ll take a mile” is so true.
If you leave any wiggle room for how you can help - unless you’ve agreed to offer an alternative - you can bet they’ll stretch the opportunity to the limit.
Extra Tips For Saying No
Beyond declining the project, task or request, there are a few extra tidbits that can further bolster your position.
1) Offer An Alternative
Even if you’ve said no to assisting, try to be considerate and compassionate to the other person. They’re obviously in need of help so it can be a good move to throw them a lifeline, especially if it’s a work BFF or a fellow team member.
Ask if there are any small ways you can contribute to solving the problem. A few examples:
- Read a (short) first draft and give feedback
- Spend 10 minutes brainstorming together
- Point them to resources that may help
2) Don’t Get Emotional
When you’re already stressed out and up to your eyeballs in work, a simple request from a colleague can literally tip you over the edge into a total emotional meltdown.
If you’re feeling stressed about your workload in general, unleashing on an unsuspecting co-worker who just asked to borrow your stapler isn’t a smart response.
Instead, schedule time with your boss privately to discuss (read: vent) with them.
Check out this video for a few tips on how to tell your boss you’ve reached the breaking point.
VIDEO: How To Tell Your Boss You’re Stressed - Without Seeming Like A Whiner
YOUTUBE: Courtney Clarke
> Keep your discussion problem-oriented, not emotional
> Highlight how productivity and the bottom line are impacted
> Communicate how you’ve already tried to fix the issue
> Follow up with feedback and the outcome 1-2 weeks later
3) Set A Goal
Saying no is something that takes practice. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
If you’re not sure what requests to accept and when to say no, use the Eisenhower Decision Matrix as a guide.
Never heard of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix? Check it out here. Decline any and all requests that fall into the “Delegate” or “Don’t Do” categories.
Why not set a goal for how often you would like to say no in the next week and stick to it? Each time you decline a request, give yourself a little mental pat on the back.
How To Set & Communicate Clear Boundaries At Work
Blurred or non-existent boundaries at work are recipes for stress and burnout.
According to this 2017 report from the American Psychological Association, 61% of Americans say work is the leading cause of stress in their life.
It’s up to you to set your own boundaries and let your boss and your colleagues know you’re not available 24/7.
In addition to saying no more often, there are other actions you can take to establish boundaries at work.
Set A Standard Response Time For Emails
Does this sound familiar?
A co-worker sends an email at 1pm requesting something. Then 30 minutes later, a follow-up email arrives to see if you received the first email. WTF, right?
Then, there's a phone call about an hour later to ask if you received the first email and the follow-up email and why you haven’t responded yet.
During very busy and heavy work periods (not all the time) consider setting up an email auto-reply along the lines of:
Thank you for your email. You’ve reached me during an extremely busy period, I will respond to your email in the next 2-3 business days.
This clearly communicates receipt of the email and sets a boundary for your response time.
Alternatively, in your signature footer, below your name, you can permanently include a sentence:
My response time to emails is 1-2 business days depending on the urgency.
This subtle reminder again reinforces your boundaries and sets an expectation for the response time.
Avoid A Company Issued Device If Possible
If you can, avoid a company issued phone.
When the company gives you a phone, it’s like you instantly become available around the clock. Declining a company device sets boundaries that your time, once you clock off, is off limits for anything work-related.
If being issued a device is standard company policy, only have it on during work hours.
Once you leave for the day and over the weekend, switch it off and leave it locked up in your work drawer, cabinet or secure location at the office.
It’s also a good idea to remove company email app from your personal phone entirely or turn off notifications after work hours. This way you’ll avoid getting sucked into the trap of checking work emails in your personal time.
Set And Communicate “No Interruption” Time Blocks
When you’re interrupted every 20 minutes, your productivity is seriously impacted. It actually takes around 23 minutes to get back on track after a distraction.
Enter the work strategy of interruption-free “time-blocking.”
Schedule a time block into your calendar then…
1. Close your email
2. Forward all desk calls to voicemail
3. Put your smartphone on airplane mode
4. Bang out a focused work session
If you can, schedule your “No Interruption” time-block at the same time each day and communicate it with your immediate team.
With your email and phone shut down, you’ll only have to deal with in-person interruptions.
Putting on some headphones will send a signal to social butterflies that you’re working.
However, this doesn’t always work as a “Do Not Disturb” method.
If someone shows up at your desk, let them know you’re not available to talk right now and will get back to them at the end of the time block.
Is this the first you’ve heard of time blocking?
Check out this short video to get started.
VIDEO: 4 Simple Time Blocking Tips: How To Start Time Blocking The Easy Way
YOUTUBE: Jason Whaling
> Start by implementing just one time block a week
> Create your time block when your energy is naturally high
> Reflect on how your time block worked and adjust as necessary
Disconnect From Work Once You’re Officially Off The Clock
We’ve paid a high price in our personal lives with technology. The constant connectivity means we really need to make a conscious effort to switch off from work once we’re off the clock.
Here are a few ideas on how to detach from the office:
> Write your to-do’s for the next day before you leave (this gets them out of your head)
> Create a relaxing ritual when you arrive home like taking a long, hot shower
> Disconnect from all work related devices/email as we mentioned earlier
> Schedule after work activities so you have a reason to leave on time
Check out this article for ideas on how to disconnect from work and leave the bullshit behind.
Take these tips and put them into action next time someone hits you up to do extra work.
Consider if it’s really worth staying back late every night, every week, updating a call report after customer service has taken off for the day.
Is it worth the stress?
It’s time for us be a little more like the “No, No, No” bathtub baby.
Get excited to use the word “No” and start putting boundaries in place.
And soon enough, you’ll begin to see people respect you and your time much more. You’ll get “in the zone” more often, get more real work done and your stress levels will become far more manageable.
It’s a much better place to be. You know it and so do we.