Sometimes ‘No’ is the Best Answer

Last week, I was engaged in an email conversation with someone who admitted that they were sending me messages while on a conference call; I received a call from someone who logged off a meeting early because it wasn’t substantive, and I, too, was questioned about my activities that didn’t align with current priorities.

Staying focused is sometimes hard, and saying yes to everything makes it even harder. There are so many forces vying for your time and energy. Mercilessly guarding your schedule to maintain productivity—and sanity—requires the discipline to say no to certain requests and activities. And if you’re going to say yes, at least know what’s to be gained by staying engaged.

A column in Science tackled the subject of when and how to say no in its January edition of Letters to Young Scientists, noting, “Saying no to the right things will help you prioritize high-benefit activities while maintaining a sustainable workload, avoiding excessive stress, and mitigating the risk of failing to meet your obligations.”

While the five psychology professors who authored the column intended it to be read by young academics broadening their work, the advice offers everyone a good reminder. Like me, the individuals noted in my opening examples lead teams in the orthopedic industry. No matter where you are in your career, at some point, you’ve probably committed to too many yeses when you should have given nos. Maybe you said yes because you felt obligated or considerate or excited…when what you should be, is deliberate.

Being deliberate, the psychology professors noted, requires weighing the benefits and the costs of specific invitations by asking questions such as:

    • Does it align with my goals?
    • How much will I learn?
    • Will this opportunity fortify meaningful professional relationships?
    • How much of my time will it really take?
    • Will saying yes mean I can’t say yes to something else?
    • How much stress will it cause me?
    • Will I suffer repercussions if I say no?

Most of the demands for your time likely come from colleagues and customers, who expect a “yes” reaction. Still, you should honor the discipline of how a yes or a no—or even a maybe—to a request impacts your day, your week and your highest priorities. This is worth extra consideration today as you press on with remote work. In talking with industry, it’s clear that remote work has required some initiatives to take longer; it’s created a sense of uncertainty around goals, and it’s allowed family to overlap into daily work life. Staying focused and not overloaded can be a juggle and, therefore, requires understanding of what you can and cannot commit to.

The lead on the Science article, a Harvard University professor, noted that it was her last column after two and a half years of writing. While writing was a low-cost and high-benefit experience, she’s found new high-benefit opportunities to pursue and, thus, had to say no to something.

The column parted with this sage advice, “We encourage you to do three things this year to fine-tune your ‘no’ abilities: Make it a priority to think carefully before saying yes to requests; identify mentors or peers who can you help you weigh the costs and benefits; and, finally, take a clear-eyed look at your existing commitments to ensure that you are leaving the time you need to take care of yourself.”


Carolyn LaWell is ORTHOWORLD’s Chief Content Officer.

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