If at first you succeed

Recently a colleague asked me to help them with a short-term project.

My first instinct was to politely decline the request. “No, I’m sorry I can’t. I’ve made other commitments during that time”.

But there was a moment when I thought This person could really use my help. It’s only for a few days, and they’re paying me for it.

It took me several days to respond to the request because I just couldn’t decide what to do. One on hand I felt guilty and worried about the interpersonal ramifications of saying no – and on the other hand I was completely uninterested in doing the work. In fact, no part of me wanted to do it.

And then I discovered, this is not just my problem. This is a human experience.

A phenomenon that happens when we are successful, when we have more opportunities and choices than we can possibly agree to and we struggle with making the best decisions for ourselves.

In school, most of us are focused on graduating and have great clarity about what we need to do and what we need to avoid in order to be successful. But once we graduate, most of us have more opportunities and choices than we know what to do with.

It sounds like a good problem to have – but it turns out to be a problem that leads to bad decisions and grim consequences. When we say yes too many times to the wrong opportunities, we end up living a life much different than the one we ought to have lived.

As a nurse practitioner, I constantly feel compelled to say yes to extra hours, more shifts, and time requested of me. There’s always a need for help and there’s a huge financial incentive if I want it. These factors lead me to say yes more often than not. But when I show up and actually doing the work – I want to do less of it. It’s just not the kind of work I’m meant to do.

Most of us know that we shouldn’t let other people’s priorities and agendas push us to make wrong decisions. And yet we do it all the time. We say yes to avoid the short-term pain of saying no and do things because we think we have to.

If you work night shifts, you’re probably used to being asked to stay longer than you’d like. If you’re a hard worker, you’re likely used to being asked to do more. And if you’re easy-going, friendly and intelligent, perhaps you’ve noticed that people kindly – and often – ask for your input or your time.

When we’re faced with plenty of opportunities and choices, we need to be very clear about what’s important to us and why and establish boundaries about what we will or won’t do. So that when we’re faced with an opportunity to choose this or that, we’ll be more likely to make the best decision for ourselves.

The next time someone asks you to do something, or you’re stuck between two choices, ask yourself:

  • What will I have to give up if I say yes?
  • Do I really want to do this right now?
  • If I didn’t have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to obtain it?
  • What’s really important to me right now that I’m not investing enough time and energy in. If I say yes to this opportunity, will it affect my ability to do what’s more important?

Even if it doesn’t feel like we have a choice, we almost always have the ability to choose between making someone else temporarily happy and committing ourselves to our highest contribution to the world.

Saying no to less important things gives us the time and energy to put into the things that are more important to us.

“So no, sorry I can’t help you. I can’t help you because I need to do what’s most important to me right now and help the people I’m meant to serve.”

And that’s you.