I’ve felt busier at work this year than usual. (Hence why it’s been a year since my last post – yikes!) I’m probably not actually busier as measured by, I dunno, theoretical units of work effort. It’s that there is a wider variety and breadth of what I have to deal with each day than, I think, ever. Rather than concentrating on fewer items, my time and attention are spread across many items.
I don’t like working like this, and I’m also not used to it, compared with diving deeply into technical efforts. I don’t have the mental habits in place to work well this way (at least by my own assessment).
So, I’ve been learning and reading about this conundrum. While researching one topic, how to make effective requests, I ended up reflecting on how I respond to requests. I try to take care of everything on my plate, regardless of who placed it there, but this year I’ve seen just how finite the size of that plate is. I can’t respond to everything that either I want to or others want me to.
For this common work scenario, you’ll hear the recommendation to learn to say no. I’ve realized how very rarely, nay, even seldom, I out-and-out say no. I mean, I totally buy into the idea, but when it comes time … that little word barely ever passes between my lips. Just thinking about saying that to a coworker feels bad to me when I imagine it.
The problem is that, because of my reluctance to explicitly say no, I am instead implicitly saying no, now more than I used to. That’s even worse.
The catalyst for my realization is this article by Fred Kofman: How to Elicit Effective Commitments. It’s really strict about the responses you should accept for a request.
- Not yet because of one of four fixed, delimited reasons.
Any other answer is, in Kofman’s words, a “weasel promise”. Looking at the list of them … crap, it’s my entire suite of responses these days. The more I read, the worse I felt about how I respond to requests … never mind how I can request things from others.
As the kids say these days, I feel personally attacked.
He’s not wrong, though. All of his example weasel promises are non-answers, neither yes nor no. As he goes on to explain: “When you ask someone to do something you get a resounding [weasel promise form of] ‘yes,’ but then the deadline arrives and … nothing.” Sounds familiar, like, say, most of software development.
In contrast, an explicit no often immediately leads to “why not?”, and then you can work to modify the request or make changes elsewhere to turn it into a real yes. An uncommitted yes doesn’t fix anything and guarantees nothing, or leads to a long, drawn-out negotiation process that everyone kind of hates. So, yeah, it’s about as worthless as Kofman suggests it is.
As a requester, I would actually much rather get a straight up no than an uncommitted yes to my requests. So, then, why can’t I take my own advice?
Besides my versatility in weasel promises, here are other ways I avoid saying no to requests.
- Abandoning email or Slack threads. There’s a conversation going on and I just … go silent.
- Abandoning or ignoring review requests. Whether code or documentation.
- Letting JIRA issues linger … forever. The backlog is where issues go to die.
- No longer attending regular meetings. Fun fact: If I RSVP “maybe” to a meeting with more than a few people in it … it’s a “no”.
- Doing other work while in a meeting. When I do that, I’m not attending the meeting.
- Not following up on things I said I’d do. Sometimes I just forget. Other times, it gets on my to-do list and … stays.
- Ignoring Slack direct messages. There’s nobody home!
Geez, I sound like a real jerk. But, in my defense:
- I’m not just doing nothing instead. This isn’t laziness. It’s just that there is other work that I really want to attend to (requested by others, of course). People understand that I, like everyone else in our understaffed company, am very busy.
- I just forget stuff. As I said, the variety of work items is huge for me. I try to track them all but I’m not great at it. Items fall off my radar frequently, and I have not instilled strong habits to avoid that yet.
- I try to minimize interruptions. That means delaying responses until later, which increases the odds that I will forget them.
Despite these qualifications, my implicit no methods remain problematic. Primarily, I imagine that for every request that I weasel out of, there’s a requester I’m irritating. At least Kofman suggests that blaming me for my lack of integrity here would be a futile “victim story”, but that doesn’t actually make me feel better about it.
Another problem is that, without saying no, all of these requests remain in limbo in my immense mental list of Things I Should Do. I already have items I definitely Should Do, but then there are all these hazy, tentative other items floating around. It’d be better for me, personally, to just kick them out. Otherwise, it’s distracting.
In fact, distraction is the key. Without giving firm nos (noes?) to requests, they accumulate in my mind, and memory and concentration suffer. Like, I literally forget things after five minutes nowadays, even outside of work, because there are so many unresolved concerns flitting about in my brain. No, it’s not because I’m getting older, shut up.
Thinking back to Kofman’s approach to requests: It’s quite distraction-free, isn’t it? So cut and dry. There is either a commitment, no commitment, or a finite path to getting to one or the other. There are no indistinct, unbounded half-tasks, especially for the one receiving the request. Simple. Straightforward.
Kofman even hints at how his regime empowers the one saying no: “[Your counterpart being given a request] does not give you the right to hold her accountable for a promise.” This speaks to me, because I do treat saying yes to a request as a promise, and failing to satisfy a promise makes me feel like crud. So it’s interesting to think about a no as a legitimate defense against undesired promise-making.
It’s not enough to just say no … usually. You also need a “because”, with a reason stronger than “I don’t wanna”. (Usually.) Through more reading and research I’ve picked up on a few good reasons that you could give for a no, but this post has gone on long enough, so I’ll leave that topic for next time. Until then, I’m considering the idea that “being less distracted” is one of those good reasons; that could be the key to me shaking my implicit no habit.