My secret hardware weapon sits on the corner of my desk. It’s a phone. Plugged into the wall and everything. You can do amazing shit with it. For example, I’ve found that you can consolidate a 24 volley e-mail thread with a client down to five minutes if you call them on the phone. And, unlike e-mail, you can read people’s tone and awkward pauses. Not to mention you can actually hear them “LOL”.

~ Mike Monteiro in The Setup

I do not share Mike’s love of the phone itself. But the principal that underpins his point, that of talking to someone directly, being more productive and useful than email, rings true.

My version of this is the face-to-face conversation. At my current place of employment, email is treated almost as if it is the lifeblood that keeps the place alive. To my mind however, email, like blood, is prone to clotting, and can cause a project or idea to go into cardiac arrest. To avoid this, I like to get up from my desk and sit down with a colleague (or colleagues) face-to-face. Which, ironically, is better for my circulation, having spent so much time sat at a desk – staring at a computer screen.

The face-to-face conversation, like Mike’s phone call, is far more powerful and productive than an email, which can invariably turn into an elongated quagmire, diminishing your capacity to move forwards. I get to see what people really think from their reactions (facial expression / tone of voice) and walk away with decisions made, actions decided upon. Moreover, I think it demonstrates how valuable the topic, idea or project is to you – and that you want others to share in that.

So, while I am a proponent of the ‘paperless movement’, I am no fan of the ‘lets do it all by email’ movement either. There are better ways than email… and you don’t have to be constrained by time or by geographical location, either!

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