Before you can learn to say ‘no’, you have to decide what to say ‘yes’ to

Learn to say no

It is easy to say yes. After all, saying yes offers instant gratification. Your line manager is pleased therefore you feel good. Great even. Until, you have said yes to so many things that it is not fun anymore. Until, you have so much work that you don’t know where to start. Things are either not getting done or you have compromised your usual high standards, instead outputting mediocre work. Or your work/life balance has tilted so far in the wrong direction that you have forgotten what your family and friends look like; the book you started reading two months ago remains unfinished; and your fridge, once stocked with fresh produce, has become a haven for microwavable processed meals.

This is no way to do ‘the work’. You must learn to say no; to recognise when you have taken on enough. A scary idea, particularly for someone at the start of their career. The fear sets in. You don’t want to disappoint anyone. However, you can do it; you can learn to say no.

But first, you need to have an important conversation with yourself. What is this conversation about? It is about figuring out what excites you, about what is important to you. It is about…

Deciding what to say yes to

You may not figure this out immediately. In fact, for some it takes the scenario described in the first paragraph to get there.

When I started work at my current school, I was employed to teach English and Media Studies. I quickly realised that the lessons I had been given, teaching Media, were the ones that I looked forward to the most. I had a conversation with myself in which I promised to focus my energies on Media Studies. I decided to say no to English in order to say yes to Media. When opportunities arose in Media I unequivocally said yes. When opportunities arose in English I sometimes said yes but more often said no. It paid off. The time and attention I have put into Media Studies has resulted in elevating the subjects status within the school, a sustained period of successful results and subsequent promotions for myself.

The problem with pleasing others

It is easy (particularly as a teacher) to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone. The work you want to focus on is pushed aside by numerous requests and tasks from many different people: colleagues, your line-manager, the principal. The problem with pleasing others is, you simply can not please them all. Therefore, it is important to remember (no matter how far up the ladder you climb) who you are working for. For me, it is the students. Everything I do, every time I say yes, it is because I believe that it will have a positive impact on the learning of the students. If I don’t see a benefit for the students within what I’m being asked to do then I’m going to try to say no.

In practice

In practice, saying no is not easy. I won’t lie and say that I say no to any task that I don’t see the value in. If I did, I would probably find myself without a job. However, I have learned to manage my workload, to say no when I can, and to say yes (as often as possible) to the work that matters.

To put this another way:

Until you say ‘no’ to everything else, you cannot say ‘yes’ to something worth fully investing yourself in.

~James Shelley

Published by

James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

4 thoughts on “Before you can learn to say ‘no’, you have to decide what to say ‘yes’ to”

  1. Whole heartedly agree with your points. “Yes” was definitely my modus operandi in my last career and I regret it now! It became a nightmare and I ended up putting in many extra hours to keep on top of everything.
    As a teacher I’ll already be working a lot of hours so if I do take on extra work (lets face it I probably will), it is important that as much of it as possible is work I will enjoy.

    1. Exactly! Something that helps me is this: At the beginning of the day I select no more than three really important tasks. By only selecting three, I always get them done regardless of other things that get thrown my way. If I find at the end of the day I’ve done everything then I get to other stuff. By keeping my MIT list small, I rarely feel that the work I would have liked to say no to, but couldn’t, has got in the way of me doing the work that matters.

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