Short, Sweet, and to the Point: Boost Your Productivity By Saying No

“Not just no, but HELL no.” — Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s response, when asked to surrender by Union General George Armstrong Custer.

Short, Sweet, and to the Point:  Boost Your Productivity By Saying No by Laura Stack #productivityIn a corporate environment where a can-do, go-team attitude is important for both personal and team success, it can seem like you must say “yes” to every task thrust your way. Sometimes, in fact, it seems impossible to say “no.” If your manager drops another project on your plate while you’re running out the door, or when an end user asks if you can add just one more little feature while you’re elbow-deep in the code, it’s challenging at best to refuse.

But while it may make you feel anxious to do so, sometimes you have to say “no” to requests—or demands—in order to keep from drowning in overwork and consistently working a 12-hour day. After all, a complete physical and/or emotional breakdown would be bad for your productivity. Even if it’s never happened to you, you’ve seen it in others; and you’ve probably felt the strain when weighed down by almost enough straws to break your back. It happens to anyone with significant responsibility who juggles multiple projects.

When you’re on the ragged edge of using your computer as a boat anchor, something must give. If you learn to say “no” to people just a little bit more, you’ll witness a new feeling of release and relief.

Revenge of the Yes-Man

Years ago, I saw a “Wizard of Id” comic strip that made me laugh. It showed a man in court attire running over the landscape, shouting “No! No! No! No!” over and over. When one soldier asked another, “What’s with him?” his buddy replied, “That’s the king’s Yes-Man. It’s his day off.”

Like the Yes-Man, you must occasionally say no, because it will keep coming until you wave the white flag. Overcommitting and taking on too much work will tangle you up so badly your overall performance will suffer in the end. Believe me, people will take advantage of your good nature if you let them. So when one of your co-workers asks if you can do them just one little favor, check your schedule. If you don’t have enough time, say you regret you don’t have the bandwidth to take it on right now. You don’t have to be snappy about it, but you also don’t need to take everything people hand you.

Don’t put everyone else’s needs over your own. Don’t “volunteer” to coach the company’s Little League Team (do you even coach your own son’s little league game?), or bake a cake for someone’s birthday, or do a quick analysis for the guy in the next cube, no matter how someone pressures you—unless, in the last case, he already has your manager’s backing.

Again, you don’t have to be rude about it; just tell the person you’re fully committed right now. Are you willing to give up family time to do someone else’s work, or stay late because you didn’t get yours done? There’s only so much time in the bank for any particular workweek—and there’s no way to add more, so don’t let someone else overdraw your account.

Here are a few “creative” ways to say no:

1. Offer to meet people halfway. Just tell the person, “I can’t handle this now, but if it can wait two weeks, I can look at it then.” If it’s time-sensitive, you’re off the hook. If not, it can wait until a slot opens in your schedule. Or magically, someone else will be found who can do it.

2. Ask if you can get started and finish later. If you can do a certain amount of the task but can’t get it all, offer to do that much. Do enough to get it started, and they might find someone else to do the rest.

3. Make an introduction. Tell them, “While this isn’t a good fit for me right now, here’s someone who might be able to help,” or “These resources might help you find what you’re looking for,” and direct them accordingly.

4. Punt it. If people ask for your help with a task and you can’t or don’t want to give it, suggest they make the request through your manager. They may be reluctant to do so, and even if they do, your manager might shoot them down. My office manager is often asked by my friends’ assistants to show them how to do something or train them, and she always copies me in, so I can say, “her time is fully committed supporting our business, so I regret we won’t be able to do that for you.” Then give an idea where to get answers.

What If It’s the Boss?

If your direct superior keeps putting more projects onto your overloaded plate, you’ll have to get help prioritizing. Find out the ranking of the tasks in terms of importance and give your estimated dates of completion. Not surprisingly, some managers will reply with a less-than-useful “everything’s top priority.” In other words, nothing is. Discuss a priority framework to guide you, so you make sure to accomplish the top priorities first.

Others may want you to do everything ASAP. Still not very useful. If this is the response, you’ll just have to say, “I’ll work on Project A first, then.” If you get an objection, then ask what you should do instead. Point out you can only do one thing at a time effectively, and ask—again, without rancor—for assistance in prioritizing. There’s no human way you can complete five significant projects all due Friday without something breaking down. Because you’re only flesh and blood, that thing will probably be you.

Don’t let it happen. Even when you can’t say no, find a way to do it anyway. Your productivity and sanity will thank you.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Total Transparency: Making an Open Book of Your Worklife

“Even the oldest trees aren’t ashamed to stand naked.” — Marty Rubin, American author.

Total Transparency: Making an Open Book of Your Worklife by Laura Stack #productivityHow transparent is your organization? Does every person in every department have a working knowledge of the organization’s goals, mission and vision, and core values? Perhaps your organization even practices a more radical transparency, where any employee can check the monthly numbers, read board meeting minutes, and review proposed policy changes. Some companies also provide access to their capital structure and strategy, stress collaborative decision-making—and even make everyone’s salary a matter of public record.

This type of corporate-level transparency seems to result in a happier, more productive workforce overall—a lesson to take to heart if you happen to be a manager yourself. People are more likely to take ownership of their jobs when they understand how they fit into the corporate structure, why their work matters, and how it moves the company forward as a whole. Even if the effect is minor, remember the old “a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step” rule. Small collaborative efforts spread over long periods, or shared with dozens, hundreds, or thousands of other workers, can really add up. All those inexpensive burgers and fries at McDonald’s built it into a fast food empire, one Happy Meal at a time.

Personal Transparency

And how about you? Do you carry forward this spirit of transparency in your own work? Let’s look at some areas where transparency can boost your individual and collective productivity.

1. Data. Unless you’re working on a secret project, don’t “silo” your data so other people can’t get at it. If siloing has occurred because of electronic or mechanical incompatibilities, make every effort to get that data out into the open. Not only will doing so make your job easier, it’ll make other people’s jobs easier (also making life easier for you, since you don’t have to hunt it up and produce it for them). If you have templates or checklists that will help others save time, share them! It will come back to you in the end.

2. Your schedule. Change your calendar permissions so that everyone in the company can see your daily schedule. This helps people check your availability before giving you a call or heading for your office, only to find you’re out of town or in a long meeting. People can send you meeting requests to get some time on your schedule, cutting down on unplanned interruptions.

3. Your projects. Keep people informed about what you’re working on, and let them know you’re open for ideas and suggestions. If you count on someone for information or some other link in a productivity chain, make absolutely sure they know your success depends on theirs.

4. Your strategic knowledge. Rather than waiting for your manager to pass along your organization’s strategy documents, take the initiative and dig it up the information yourself. Have a meeting with your manager to tie your goals into her goals, so you can capitalize on the company’s strategy and better exercise your empowerment.

5. Your progress. Don’t keep wondering how well your team or division is doing. If your company hasn’t already implemented transparency in this area, urge them to do so. When you can easily view and own team or organizational performance metrics, you can adjust your schedule or approach to boost productivity in problem areas. If you’re not doing as well as you’d wish, call up the top performers and ask to take them to lunch. Share your success secrets with your colleagues when given an opportunity as well. What comes around, goes around.

6. Your communications. If you’re unhappy, say so. You don’t have to be aggressive or nasty, but don’t beat around the bush and smile off your frustrations. Be honest and forthright in your communications, so the problem doesn’t fester. Tell them what you’d like to see happen the next time to avoid any problems. When you’re impressed with others’ work, let them know that, too.

Helping Them Helps You

Most of the points I’ve outlined here may seem to be more for the benefit of your teammates than for you yourself, but as the saying goes, “Helping you helps me,” or “A rising tide lifts all boats.” When your approach to work is as clear and as readable as an open book, all benefit—and your own productivity goes up and stress goes down. Always be transparent, which will allow people to trust you to do what you promise, give what you can, and provide access to anything that’s not sensitive. In the office, nice people really can finish first. As the late Zig Ziglar pointed out, you can have whatever you want—as long as you help other people get what they want.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Rest Your Way to Success: The Value of Productive Relaxation

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” — Chinese proverb.

Rest Your Way to Success:  The Value of Productive Relaxation by Laura Stack #productivityWhen I first read that the average American worker left 9.2 vacation days unused in 2012—three more than the year before!—I was shocked, but not surprised. Even in the waning days of the Great Recession, workers were still overstretched. They worried about taking all the time they were owed, lest they be replaced with hungrier workers while gone. Even today, half of us expect to work during vacations, and a third of us eat at our desks.

It might be nice to return to the old days, when office life seemed easier, but I doubt that will happen. The business world is normalizing at a new level, one based on agility, speed, flexibility, and on-the-spot execution. This means that things will never be the same, and we have to adjust to that.

However, that doesn’t mean the change will kill us. In fact, most indicators suggest we have the opportunity to become more creative and productive than ever, just by taking it easier on ourselves. That assumes, of course, you can figure out how to dial it down again, especially if you’ve become an adrenaline/caffeine junkie who feels nervous and useless when not furiously busy.

Self-Protection

The phrase that pays is strategic renewal. This includes taking more restful days off, taking full advantage of breaks to eat, play, and interact socially, and keeping evenings and weekends for yourself. Some experts, like Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project, even advocate afternoon naps, meditation, lunchtime workouts, telecommuting, and other practices that won’t fly in most organizations. His employees get no less than four paid weeks of vacation from their first year, along with the above energy perks and workdays ending at 6 P.M. sharp. In February 2013, he claimed that in a decade, no one had ever chosen to leave his company.

The question here is: what will your superiors allow you to do in terms of strategic renewal? We already know that beyond 40 hours a week, productivity drops and engagement sours. More than 11 hours a day increases risks of coronary events by two-thirds. Depression skyrockets, and so does insomnia. If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, how can you do your best work?

You can’t. Being in tip-top productivity shape requires regular recharging. Studies have proven that well-rested people do more and better work. Point this out to your manager if she’s grouchy about you taking all your PTO and your weekends.

Here’s another interesting point. You may know your body runs on a 90-minute sleep cycle at night, and that you feel best when awakened at the end of a cycle than in the middle. Newer research demonstrates that the same is true of daytime activity: you function best in 90-minute time-chunks, which is why our attention often wonders after an intense spate of work or during long meetings. As it turns out, we humans are like quarter horses: we’re made for short, intense sprints followed by substantial rest periods. Your brain and body want to you take a break—and they especially want you to sleep regularly.

I have a writer friend who has boosted his productivity by learning to relax and pace himself. He’s self-employed, so he sets his own hours; though as he says, his boss is a real jerk who makes him work 14 hours a day, six days a week! But the fact is, his 14-hour days are punctuated with two breaks at lunch and dinner, each two hours long, when he eats, reads, and runs errands. Saturday is his dedicated day off. His to-do lists typically consist of 12-16 items daily, which is stretching it—but he always gives himself plenty of time to complete every project, rarely procrastinates, and includes items that can drop off the list if time runs out.

Today, he’s accomplishing more than before, with far less stress and better sleep habits than ever before. There was a time he refused to take unscheduled client calls because they interfered with his productivity; now he takes them anytime, and if necessary, cuts a low-priority item from his list to make time. He’s still more productive than ever.

So relax. You’ll do fine if you take time for yourself, and occasionally add a little change of pace to your work schedule. The old saying “a change of work can be as refreshing as a period of relaxation” definitely has validity.