“I’ve had a habit over the years of allowing myself to get so busy that “no” becomes by default answer to practically every question — this has been especially true when it came to helping with friends’ projects or doing non-paying work for worthy causes.
Obviously, in many ways it’s healthy to learn how to say no; you avoid over-committing by ensuring that you’ve thought through all the work on your plate and then never take on new commitments without knowing there’s room to spare.
The good news is that there’s actually an even healthier middle path between “Sure. Anything you say” and “No way. Never.” I call it “the qualified ‘yes.’”
When people ask me to start a new project of any kind — and assuming it is something I’m actually interested in doing — I try to set reasonable boundaries and expectations on how actively I’ll participate as well as how much time and availability I can afford to spend on it. The key for me has been to set fairly hard numerical caps on time, access, and the amount of attention that I want to contribute — and to do so early in the life of the relationship. Here’s the way I put it in that post from December 2004:
So, what used to be “Sure, I’ll do your web site” is now more often “Sure, I’ll give you 10 hours and 3 calls over the next month to use however you want.” If nothing else, it helps everyone understand that time is a precious commodity, but it also gets me out of being the de facto manager for every aspect of a project I touch.”
Bob over at Pastor Hacks has written about the issue of saying “Yes!” or “No!” when people request some of your time. He links to Merlin Mann who points us to a great third option: The Qualified Yes.
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