Be More Effective – Week 19: Say ‘No’ the Right Way

yes-3100993_1920

We all have lots on our plates. By design, we have more things we could do, than what we can actually deliver in the given time. That forces us to make prioritizations and double down on the most impactful things.

With that, it’s important to know how to say ‘no’. Here is how I say ‘no’ if I need to. And how I appreciate other’s saying know, so that I can manage around it.

Saying ‘no’ the right way

It’s ok to say ‘no’. In fact, people expect you to be honest enough to say ‘no’ if you will not be able to do something.

It’s not ok to say ‘yes’, but then fail to follow through on your promises or to raise the flag the last-minute.

Say ‘no’ early. Help people understand why you need to say ‘no’. Offer alternatives. Escalate quickly if plans change.

So how do you say ‘no’ the right way?

Start with the ‘why’ (as always)

Explain why you cannot do something. Explain what else you need to do during the same time and why you think that is more important. Provide the background so that others can follow your decision.

If you need to say ‘no’ to your boss, explain to her how you are prioritizing and why you think another task is more important. If she doesn’t agree, list the things that are competing for your time. Ask which one you should drop instead.

Don’t just take on an additional task, hoping you will be able to deliver it without knowing when you would do that feat. Most people prefer an honest push-back over a best of intentions but unrealistic commitment that won’t be followed through.

Understand timelines

Not everything needs to happen right now. In fact, very few things are truly urgent, although many are perceived or presented as urgent.

Ask for when a task is due. Check your calendar and priorities and see when you can fit it in. Offer that plan and check for agreement.

Be realistic and ask people for true timelines. Many people will buffer when they really need something. Ask them to give you the real deadline, but then also make sure that you will be ready by that time. Otherwise you just teach them to add additional buffers in the future.

Offer alternatives

Try to find alternatives if priorities and timelines don’t line up. Maybe you cannot do the update this week because you need to work on an important paper for the team, but your coworker can take the work off your shoulder this time? Maybe the project update this week is not as urgent as it appears and it will be covered anyway in your more thorough update that is coming two weeks from now. Maybe the offsite follow-up can wait a week since you have blocked some dedicated follow-up time next week anyway.

Understand the true urgency and then plan for it. Find alternatives if things don’t fit but need to get done anyway.

For whatever plan, timeline or alternatives you offer – make sure you actually plan and block time for it!

Escalate early if plans change

Only one thing is worse for a manager than a team member who comes the day before a deadline to tell you that he won’t get the work done in time: a team member who tells you the day off.

As soon as you realize that plans won’t happen as initially scheduled, you need to let everyone who counts on your deliverable know. Give a heads-up as early as possible. Have checkpoints ahead of your deadline so that you yourself will know right away if things get out of control.

Escalate early! Given enough time to react, there is almost always another solution. If you only learn about an issue the last-minute, there is usually little that can be done.

Similarly, if you need to de-prioritize or completely drop work that you had initially planned, you need to let everyone who is waiting on you know as quickly as possible.

Again, the ‘why’ does the trick. Explain why things needed to change, what you had to prioritize. If possible at all, offer a new timeline or another solution. Check if that’s ok for the person who was counting on you. Don’t just drop the bomb, or even worse, don’t let the other person find out on their own.

Reflection: What’s on Your Worry List?

write-ec3cb20c2b_1920

We all have a to-do list (I assume), but do you also have a worry-list?

We are usually pretty good at tracking the things we need to do, but we often miss paying attention to risks. Those risks have a tendency to turn into issues at the worst moment and often prevent us from achieving a goal (or at least require last-minute fire fights).

Think about all the things that could go wrong. What are you worried about. Then find solutions or mitigations for each and burn down that list to zero.

It’s a good practice to start a worry-list when you start a new project. Probably even before you start a to-do list.

Get a handle on all things that could go wrong

Start listing the things that could go wrong. Look at that list from all different angles (e.g. resourcing changes, stakeholder alignment, changing assumptions, ambiguity on details and data) to make it as comprehensive as possible.

Keep adding to that list as you go deeper into the project, learn more and discover new risks and challenges. Think about all the possible worst-case scenarios and what they would mean for your goal (Special Forces teams do a similar scenario-play exercise before going into a mission).

Your worry list should contain:

  • Big risks for your goal
  • Upcoming or anticipated challenges
  • Big open questions and any areas of ambiguity

Get on a glide path to bliss

Once you have your list, make it a point and recurring check to burn down that list. Treat it like a bug list – burn down issue by issue and make sure you have a glide path to zero way before your project is due.

Be clear and understand which items on your worry list need to be resolved first and by what time. What needs to come next? What project steps do need which items to be resolved? What are the long poles that take more time to figure out?

Track risks closely so that you will spot early if a risk turns into an actual issue (dependencies to other people or teams are a great example for this).

If you don’t have one, start a worry list for your key priorities today.

Be More Effective – Week 17: Start Time Boxing

diary-2116244_1920

Work and time have that funny relationship, where a given task always takes exactly as much time as you have allocated for it.

If you have planned an hour to catch up on your email, it will take an hour. If you have planned 30 mins, then you most likely will get just as much done. If you give yourself an afternoon to clean the yard, it will take an afternoon. If you give yourself the whole weekend it will surly take that long (and you likely won’t even get finished).

Even worse, if you don’t set a time limit, chances are that you will keep on working (or being distracted), without ever getting the job done.

Set your self an aggressive time limit and then get the job done in that time.

If you set yourself an aggressive time limit to get a job done, you box it into a certain space in your calendar. You time box.

Time boxing (if you took an aggressive time frame) will make you prioritize. It will help you focus on getting the job done and prevent you from getting distracted because you feel you have all the time in the world. You’re on a clock, you have to be efficient. Because you have to be efficient you will be efficient.

Also plan a little break time after your time box. Focus and push but know that you will be able to let go and relax a little afterwards.

Find what timeframes work for you. Few people get a meaningful amount of things done in periods shorter than 30 mins. It just takes a while to get mentally organized and started. Likewise our concentration tends to go down after an hours and it is usually a good idea to take a break.

Notice when you can no longer keep up the concentration and take a break. When I feel that I get inefficient in the evening, I will go home. There might be work left, but I will be more effective and efficient the next morning. At that stage an hour sleep is worth more than an hour pretend-work.