Learning to say no matters. A lot.
I've been thinking recently about what Michael Bungay Stanier describes as "Bad Work," "Good Work," and "Great Work," particularly as it relates to my wife. (Michael is the founder of Box Of Crayons and is the author of Do More Great Work.)
In Stanier's view, "Bad Work" is the brain-numbing, soul-sucking crap that drives you to drink -- stupid meetings, inane emails, pointless office face time, etc. "Good Work" is the work you do most of your time, the product or service that your organization provides to the world. Stanier says
There’s nothing wrong with Good Work—except for two things.
First of all, it’s endless. Trying to get your Good Work done can feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock up the mountain, a never-ending task. And second, Good Work is comfortable. The routine and busy-ness of it all is seductive. You know in your heart of hearts that you’re no longer stretching yourself or challenging how things are done. Your job has turned into just getting through your workload—week in, week out.
By contrast, "Great Work" is the stuff that makes a real difference to the organization and to the world. Great Work
is what you were hoping for when you signed up for this job. It’s meaningful and it’s challenging. It’s about making a difference. It matters to you and it lights you up. It matters at an organizational level too. Great Work is at the heart of blue ocean strategy, of innovation and strategic differentiation, of evolution and change. Great Work sets up an organization for longer-term success.
Now, my wife is a doctor at a major NYC cancer hospital. It's a teaching hospital, which means that while her days are primarily clinical, filled with procedures and patients, she also has a significant research and teaching burden. I think that kind of work is both "good" and "great." I mean, helping to cure people of cancer is pretty damn meaningful and makes a real difference. But at the same time, it's routine (for her, not the patients); it's often not that challenging; and it's definitely Sisyphean.
Recently, she's been heavily involved with a major process improvement project. Even though it's administrative work, I think it qualifies as Great Work because when it's done, the hospital will be able to treat more people, more quickly, with less of a hassle for the patients. And if you're sitting there with a giant liver tumor, getting to see her more quickly with less of a hassle is pretty Great.
But here's the problem: the clinical, academic, and research burdens are overwhelming her. She has very little time to work on the process improvement project, because she has so much else going on. And she feels as though she can't say no to any of those other responsibilities. Partly that's self-imposed pressure. Partly that's due to preposterously high expectations set by the hospital. So she's got a ton of work that's not getting done, and she feels terrible about it.
Of course, even though she's accepted all the work, she's not getting to a lot of it. Her time is finite. So even though she says yes, she might as well have said no.
And if she had explicitly said no to some of the work -- by doing fewer procedures, teaching fewer residents, not reviewing any papers -- she'd be able to do more of the process improvement project. Frankly, she's not doing those other things in a very timely fashion anyway. And had she done so, she might be less stressed and feel better about herself.
I've written before about the importance of understanding one's own production capacity. It seems to me that if you understand your capacity, it will help you learn to say no (or as Stanier says, at least it will help you "master the art of saying yes slowly").
After all, your capacity is fixed. Saying yes or no will not affect the amount of work you can do. But saying no will make you feel better. And it just might help you do more Great Work.