Learning to Say No to Things

First Published: February 17, 2021
Hi! 👋 This article has been revised and expanded as a chapter of the Developer Microskills Guide to Tiny Experiments. It's available as an ebook and audio book! 🎉

I hate most self-help and career advice out there because it always glosses over details and hides away important backstory. One thing you should know about my writing is that I'm never talking about these career or productivity topics from some ivory tower. My writing comes from my own frustrations and my seemingly endless war with my brain that is constantly trying to sabotage me. It's why you'll never hear me make grandiose promises to you: my goal is to help you get better and more effective at whatever you're trying to do and help you get further along with whatever you're working toward.

This week's article is no exception and is something I've been working on a lot over the last year: how to say no to things. In 2020, I did a terrible job at this. I was trying to do a million things at once. Developer relations is already a job ripe for this problem given how varied it is, and on the whole I think most people in dev rel try to be kind and helpful, which is a double whammy of being predisposed to saying yes to everything.

Saying yes to everything has two big problems, though:

  1. It's the shortest road to burnout.
  2. It becomes difficult to know if you're making progress on the Most Important Things you're working on.

Why do we say yes to everything? I can think of three reasons that come up for me:

  1. FOMO (fear of missing out): What if this talk/podcast/thing is amazing and I'm not there? What if it's the thing that's going to take my career to the next level?
  2. Politeness: I feel bad saying no....
  3. Obligation: I feel like I have to do this...

Of course, for day jobs, you do have to do some things out of obligation. Hopefully your boss can work with you so that you're not constantly doing things you hate, but at the end of the day, you may have to do some things you're not thrilled about. I'm less concerned about not doing what you don't want to do here and more concerned with overloading your capacity.

So how do you say no to things without being a jerk? Also, how do you know what to say no to?

Deciding Whether to Say Yes

Let's start with the latter. As I said in the article about prioritizing projects, the microskill you're practicing here is good judgment. There are some steps you can take when you're deciding whether to say yes to something that will help you build the intuition that comes with good judgment.

First, observe the emotion you're feeling. Which category does this decision fall into?

  1. Things you want to do but maybe shouldn't
  2. Things you don't want to do but feel FOMO or obligation to

FOMO and obligation have a shared root: letting someone else dictate how you spend your time. You're getting caught up in their narrative instead of your own. When you find this happening, take a minute to think through your "north star," your Most Important Things you're working on. Does this request help or hurt those goals? Does it move the needle in either direction, no matter how small?

You may not realize that you already know this intuitively and practice it. Imagine that a total stranger came up to you on the street and asked you for help organizing decades worth of old piled up newspapers. Easy decision, right? You don't know this person, so spending hours and hours tediously doing a task for them probably wouldn't be a great use of your time. If it were your best friend on earth, or if that total stranger offered to pay you a bunch of money, you might reconsider (let's assume in this scenario the total stranger is not an axe murderer). If the total stranger turned out to be a chronically ill person who needed help cleaning their apartment, you might also choose to help out of kindness. All three of those variations (relationship, money, benevolence) shift the equation in a way that alters your judgment of whether to say yes.

All you're doing with the other decisions you face about how to spend your time -- helping others with something, work projects, consulting gigs, conference talks, or anything else -- is fine tuning your judgment of where the time vs. value payoff lies. Of course there are exceptions; it's not some mercenary transaction or robotic calculation. Sometimes you choose to do something that completely benefits another person. The important thing to remember is that you get to define value and you get to choose when to enforce it. If anything, your kindness becomes more genuine, because instead of helping people out of fear or obligation, you're doing it from your own desire to be helpful and kind.

The calculation gets more difficult when you have to choose between good options: things you want to do but aren't sure whether you should or not. There's an amazing passage in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath that captures this dilemma perfectly:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

At some point, you have to choose and go all in. You only have so much time and energy. How do you decide? You can weigh the pros and cons or try to determine which one will get you closer to your goals, but even then you may end up at a stalemate. You'll need to Just Pick Something. Luckily, there are few decisions in life that you can't undo if you make a mistake, even if it takes a long time to fix. Take a calculated risk, measure the results, and adjust course accordingly. There is a magical axiom of the universe that nothing happens until something moves. Sometimes, you can't know the answer to a decision until you've made it.

How to Say No (Literally)

Okay, so now we've talked about some of the psychology and philosophy behind why we say yes to everything. How do we say no without sounding like a jerk? Here are some helpful guidelines:

  1. Be sincere. Don't abjectly flatter or bullshit. People can tell when you're insincere and it will come back to bite you.
  2. Be direct. This is the one I've had to practice the most: don't beat around the bush. Give it to people straight.
  3. Be kind. Just because you're direct doesn't mean you need to be a jerk. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, especially since so many of these exchanges happen through text.
  4. If you can, point them in a helpful direction. When possible, I try to point them to an article or a chat group where they might be able to find the answer or another person to help with the request. One caveat: don't refer to another person without their permission. You'll just perpetuate the cycle!

Let's look at an example. Let's say someone messaged you about wanting to "pick your brain" about a technical problem. You are slammed at work and this has nothing to do with your priorities. Here's something you could say:

Hey there, I appreciate you thinking of me, but I'm just not able to do this right now. [Another good phrase is, "I just don't have the capacity to take this on."] You might try asking in the Technology X Discord server; there are a lot of knowledgable folks on there!

Notice a few things. First, you're being sincere and kind by expressing appreciation. You're also being direct, but notice: you don't need to justify saying no! You don't need to prove to anyone (with a few key exceptions) that you don't have the time, capacity, or desire to do something. You're also giving them an alternative option. Sometimes people just don't know where to go, so they fire off a message to you and hope you'll solve their problem.

I find that, most of the time, this kind of communication works. If you do get someone who rudely pushes back, trolls you, or harasses you, ignore and block liberally. Don't get sucked in and don't start justifying yourself.

These are the things that have been helping me in this area. Let me know if it works or doesn't work for you or if there's a facet of this I didn't cover for you.

This article began its life as an issue of the Developer Microskills Newsletter. Each week, I send out a practical, actionable way to improve as a developer and developer advocate. Sign up below!

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