Tuesday, October 4, 2011

[Day 4] of 31 Days of Balance: Learn to Say No

Once upon a time, I was an over-achieving college student. I was incredibly involved and outgoing on campus, and my husband and I often joke that between the two of us, we probably had a hand in every area of campus life there was. Where the problem really came in was that by my junior year, I held leadership positions in all of the organizations I was involved in. And that is where the stress came in. I was carrying a full time class load and was the president of three large organizations at once, all of which were paid positions. That doesn't even include the ones that I was just a member of or held some other position in. 
On top of that, I was everyone's "yes-man":

Can you write a blog from a student's perspective for Winthrop?
     Sure, I have plenty of time! 

Can we have a cameraman follow you around and take photos for "a-day-in-the-life" while you study for exams? (this happened, no lie) 
     No problem, it won't be a distraction! 

Can you spend your whole weekend here giving tours to Alumni? They always really love your tours. 
     Absolutely, no where I'd rather be!

Now, don't get me wrong. I loved doing those things for my school, I really really really did. My problem was that I tried to do them all at once. And you know how it ended up? Me having a conversation that went a little something like this over lunch with my friend:

Me:  I am so stressed and overwhelmed. Like, I literally am buried in things I have to get done. I'm exhausted. It's not fun anymore.
Suzie: Me too. (she also had a yes-man problem)
Me: I wish we could just...leave the country.
Suzie: Let's study abroad. 
Me: Okay!

And with that, we marched up to the International Affairs Office and signed up. And that was that. Suzie and I left less than two months later and spent an entire semester in the quaint little village of Ormskirk, England.

Downtown Ormskirk.
Guess what it solved? Not a thing. Ormskirk was the most adorable, pleasant little village. Quiet, nothing going on. Lots of hot tea and time to read for pleasure. And I, quite frankly, was miserable the majority of the time. I'm not even one to get homesick, but I missed South Carolina and Eric terribly (although Eric came to visit for 10 days or so and we had the most amazing time traveling together). My solution to my over-burdened, unbalanced life was to leave the country, when it should have been just saying, "No." England was amazing, and so were the people, and I knew I should be thankful for the experience. But to be honest, it just wasn't right for me then. It was a drastic measure taken at my breaking point, when the problem could have been solved along the way by simply not taking on more than I could handle to begin with.

What can we take away from this?  First, your first option of stress relief should never be leaving the country. Second, learn to say no.

Here's the problem: You will never, ever want to believe that you took on too much and that you can't, in fact, do it all. And then you will learn that you were wrong. Step back and evaluate what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how it is enriching your life. If you are doing it, and it is enriching someone else's, but harming your own quality of life - quit it. That is not serving others, or having a generous spirit, that is parasitic. In other words, it is draining the life out of you and your family without replenishing it in any way.

I of all people know how ridiculously difficult it can be to say that little two letter word. I left the country instead of doing it.  Here are some ways that ease the pain for me:

  • Classic "Make them think it was their idea" Approach: "I would love to help you with this, but I have other priorities right now. It's not fair to you for me to not give 100%, so please choose someone else who can."
  • The "I have to build myself up first to say no" Approach: "I'm going to have to think about that and check my calendar, and then I'll get back to you. (This is perfect for those of you who have problems saying "no" on the spot. Remove yourself from the situation, evaluate, and then give a response.)
  • "I really would love to do this, but..." Approach: Follow up with said profound reason. (This profound reasons may just be that you use that time of the day to blog, not save the world from AIDS. Don't apologize for things that are important to you.)
  • The "maybe next time" Approach: "My plate is really full right now and I have other priorities, but please keep me in mind for next time." (This is the perfect approach for when an opportunity is presented to you that you really do want to do, but you don't have the time at the moment.)
  • The "Meet me Halfway" Approach: "I really don't have time to be the coordinator for this event, but I would love to help out with the setup the night before." (A win-win for both sides...unless of course you don't even really have time for setup, at which point you will revert to the following approach...)
  • The Straight Up Approach: "I'm sorry, but no, I can't." (This will be the most difficult of course, but works well to shut up the person that would use their last dying breath to give you one last reason why you really should bake 372 cookies for the Children's Hospital by tomorrow at 10 am.)
Guess what? Most people really will understand. They get tired too. And the world really won't come to an end if you aren't at or running every single event. (All my fellow control freaks out there, raise your hand!) The majority of people ask you to do things because....wait for it...they don't have time to do everything themselves either! Participate in the things that enrich your life, not the ones that drain you.

I will always be a little too Type-A. I will always be involved. I will always want to help people. It's in my nature. If you're still reading this, I bet it's in yours too. But I've learned to say no. I've learned to prioritize the things that are really important to me and our family, and save the ones that cannot be for a later day. Keep that in mind...opportunities will roll around again. Next time, you may have more time for them. When you don't, no one gets the full benefit. A good cause is not still worth your sound mind. Repeat that slowly. A good cause is still not worth your sound mind. 

I no longer take on responsibilities just because they will look good on my resume. I no longer stay in meetings on campus until midnight. I no longer make my husband wait for me at the airport so I can assist a procrastinating attorney with work that is not my own. I no longer skip my own workouts to make it to campus in time to see every guest speaker. I no longer make it a habit to put other people ahead of my family, myself, or my sanity. No one gets the best of me that way...everyone just gets crumbs.

I understand that you want to give, you want to help, and that there are some really, really good things that you want to be a part of. Say "yes" to those. Say "next time", or say "no" to the others. The world will keep on turning, and you will start to feel more balance in your life. Balancing is not juggling...it's about a few things working together, not many things about to fall apart.

Flash forward from over-achieving college student...to over-achieving law student. Who now has a full-time job, a marriage, and a home to upkeep. And who really wants a dog. Thank goodness my husband knows how to say "no"...

[If you want to start with this series from the beginning, click here. You can check out all the other 31-dayers here.]

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