In today’s episode, Anna looks at the importance of setting healthy boundaries in your business and learning to say “no” without feeling guilty.
Once you’re clear on your priorities in your business, you need to block your calendar to understand when you’re going to work and when you’re not going to work; what are the non-negotiable parameters and where are you potentially going to be able to compromise? And you need to make those boundaries clear to yourself, to your partner, to your kids, if they’re old enough, and to your clients as well. Because there’s no point in having a business plan, a lovely list of criteria and all your values beautifully outlined on paper, and then going ahead and saying “yes” to any job, any project, any client that comes along. And this is in work, but also of course in personal life. There are all sorts of requests coming at us that come from outside of work as well, that we unfortunately might tend to say yes to, even though we don’t want to, or it doesn’t fit with our priorities. So we really need to learn to live and breathe our vision in practice. And although I talk a lot about working, not working, concrete boundaries, like shutting down your laptop, turning off the notifications on your phone, shutting the door to your study and so on… we also need mental boundaries.
*Resources mentioned during the episode*
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Hello, hello. Welcome back, as we look today at setting boundaries and learning to say no. Now, this is something that comes up again and again with my clients, and I thought it would be worth doing a full episode on this.
And again, we’re talking in the context of designing a business that’s going to work alongside your other priorities in life.
So, perhaps alongside a young family or alongside travelling the world. Just alongside having a wonderful life where you’re doing fun things, and not just being chained to your laptop the whole time.
The issue is when we talk perhaps also about work-life integration and being passionate about your business and thriving in your ikigai, as I call it, the lines can get blurred. So integration for me is not about blurring the boundaries, it’s not about working all the time, or playing all the time. It’s really important to have those distinct boundaries, as integrated as everything is, and I know that sounds a bit contradictory, but stick with me.
So, last week we talked about getting super clear on your priorities. And once you’re clear on those priorities, you need to block your calendar to understand when you’re going to work, when you’re not going to work – that’s equally important. What are the non-negotiable parameters, where are you potentially going to be able to compromise?
And you need to make those boundaries clear to yourself, to your partner, to your kids, if they’re old enough, to your clients, importantly as well.
Because there’s no point in having a business plan, list of criteria and all your values beautifully outlined on paper, and then going ahead and saying yes to any job, any project, any client that comes along. And this is in work, but also of course in personal life, there are all sorts of requests coming at us that come from outside of work as well, that we unfortunately might tend to say yes to, even though we don’t want to, or it doesn’t fit with our priorities.
So we really need to learn to live and breathe our vision in practice. And although I talk a lot about working, not working, concrete boundaries, like shutting down your laptop, turning off the notifications on your phone, shutting the door to your study and so on… we also need mental boundaries. So the idea of running your own race, for example.
Once you have those clear priorities for yourself, you want to be focusing on those goals and priorities, and you don’t want to be distracted by what other people are doing. That shiny object syndrome. You’re bombarded on a daily basis with images and messages on social media. And the pressure is on from glamorous Instagrammers who are doing those gravity defying yoga poses on the beach or the boss babes on Facebook who are making seven, eight figures every month, whatever. Not to mention all your friends who are getting a promotion, getting engaged, getting married, having children, staying in a luxury resort somewhere and whatever.
And if you obviously add all those things up, they create that impossible amalgamation of every possible goal and achievement. So boundaries also means stop comparing yourself to what other people are doing. Again, that might translate into a concrete boundary of not scrolling mindlessly through Instagram and Facebook all the time. Trying not to compare yourself to where you think you should be as well.
So comparing your year one to someone else’s year 10, or even your year two or three to someone else’s year 10. You have your vision, you have your goals, you have your plan. So keep your head down, stick to the plan and do what you know you have to do.
When it comes to translating your plans into concrete boundaries, there are a few things and they might seem very straightforward, but I’ll mention them just because I think it bears repeating, I guess. And then I want to really focus on saying no, because I think that’s where we all struggle.
But for example, can you block your calendar? And I’m a big fan of calendar blocking, so that you’re only available certain hours. A couple of things, I have a scheduler where people can book calls with me. Sometimes I go through very busy periods where we do it manually instead, but in theory at least, my calendar is linked to that calendar online, so that if you want to book a call, then you’ll see my real-time availability.
Initially, when I first started my business, I just had open all the time and people could book calls morning, afternoon, evening. And obviously that became quite stressful. At the beginning, you might be keen to have clients whenever and be very amenable to people. But you’ll find that that becomes very difficult and you don’t want people cancelling at the last second and so on.
I find my most productive time of working on key priorities, so for example, this podcast recording, I’m doing in the morning, when my daughter is sleeping. And important strategic work or content creation, all that stuff needs to be in the morning.
Clients, and I’m not saying that I’m not focusing on my important work in terms of clients, but I tend to find that I’m anyway engaged and alert when I have a phone call. I prefer to have client calls in the afternoon, because I know I’ll show up, I know I’ll be present and that works. On the other hand, if I left my personal projects to the afternoon, they’d very easily slip off a cliff and I wouldn’t get them done.
So for me, blocking my calendar, so the morning is strategic work, content creation, my time. And then the afternoon is more client calls and other things that perhaps can be worked around with less energy and so on as well. Right? So you need to find what works for you, but only make yourself available certain hours.
What can you do to help yourself stick to that plan?
So again, turning off notifications on your phone. I’ve turned off all those pesky red circles that you get on your iPhone. And the part from WhatsApp, where I have family, I do have a business WhatsApp too but that’s actually a separate number. And that one again, I turn off the notifications.
And then I check that intentionally at certain times of the day. My phone right now is on do not disturb, of course, because I’m recording a podcast or I’m in a client call or whatever. So what can you do? Close down your laptop. That’s not actually shut down my computer, which is the first time I think in months, which is probably good for the computer as well. And again, only check during those predefined intervals.
And again, we’re going to talk about this in more detail in a moment, but can you commit to pushing back? And if necessary, say no to projects with deadlines that are going to interfere with your non-working hours. So, if I have a client in a different timezone and as a one-off needs an early morning call, of course, I’ll consider that. And I’ll most likely make that work if it does work. However, if you’re consistently to every single client at their beck and call saying, yup, sure, weekends, holidays, half terms or whatever, that’s not getting you the business that you wanted or the life that you wanted.
So have a go at really brainstorming really practical, tangible ways in which you can set and stick to your boundaries. Get your partner, your kids involved, make sure it works for all of you. And then of course, once you have those boundaries defined, you need to actually stick to them.
So again, it means closing the door to your home office, shutting down the laptop, turning off the notifications when you’re not supposed to be working. And again, it means saying, no, and let’s talk about this, because it might sound ruthless to say no to extended family and friends, when they have requests coming in or projects and clients. But Anna, I’m just starting out. Shouldn’t I say yes to every client that comes my way?
So let’s look at saying no. Now, in a world in which there are so many people, projects, messages, information, whatever, vying for attention, we do need to learn to set boundaries if for nothing else, for our own sanity. But there are plenty more reasons I think why saying yes when we really want to be saying no, is quite a bad idea.
And first of all, saying yes to other people’s priorities at the expense of your own means that you’re putting others ahead of yourself.
I’ve said this I’m sure in every podcast episode the last few weeks, put your own oxygen mask on before you help other people. By all means help others, but you have to be taking care of yourself. And we’re going to be talking about this over the next few weeks as well.
But you just have to make sure you’re in a good place, in order to be able to help people. So even if you’re this selfless person who wants to put other people first, by all means, but even putting other people first means putting yourself first if that makes sense.
Now you might also not be able to deliver in the end, and you might end up having to say no when it’s too late to find another solution. So all you’re doing is making the situation worse for the other person. If you say, yes, yes, sure, no problem now maybe later on you go, oh, my goodness, there’s no way I can do this. And then it’s much worse than having said no to begin with.
Saying yes to these new things that are coming to you is going to mean that your other priorities that we very clearly defined last week are going to suffer, which in turn means that you will be letting other people down. So all you’re doing is really shifting the problem to a different area of your life. So this person in front of you today, you’re agreeing to that person, but it means that all those other things on your already full plate are going to suffer.
Also, by the way, certainly this happens to me. If you say yes when you mean no, then you’re likely to end up feeling quite resentful towards that person who’s put you in this really difficult situation. I’ve had to work on difficult client projects in the past, late at night and on holidays. It’s like, why on earth did I do this? Oh, damn this client.
But no, it’s not the client’s fault. It’s my fault. Because I chose to say yes to that project. But it does unfortunately create resentment either towards that person or if you’re a bit more mature than I am, towards yourself. But either way, that’s not a nice feeling.
Obviously, also, if you do keep on the way you’re going, if you do keep saying yes to every single thing that comes your way, if you keep taking on more than you can handle, you are eventually going to burn out, and then you’re going to be forced to say no. So again, much better to be strategic and intentional in what you say yes and no to, in order to be in control of that and not just let it happen by force, by obligation later on.
Now this also doesn’t mean that you have to go to the other extreme and say no to every single thing that comes along. Although that could be an interesting exercise for those of you who are a little bit too much on the yes side. You might want to go for a year of no, and see how that works.
But the whole point here is saying no to the unimportant stuff. And unimportant, I know is again a bit of a ruthless term, but it’s to allow you to say yes to the stuff that is important. So ultimately, saying no creates the space to say yes. Saying no to the wrong things, at the wrong people, at the wrong time, creates the space to say yes to the right things, the right people, the right time, the right priorities.
So if you find it difficult to say no, or you just tend to just jump right around and go, yeah, sure, I’ve got a few phrases that you can use. So five, in fact, I think, if I’m looking at my notes here.
So the first one is to say, no, I can’t, however, or no, but. I can’t do it, but I can give them an alternative. So I’ve done that a few times. If someone comes with something, asking me to do something that perhaps doesn’t fit my priorities, maybe I’ve shifted in different direction. It’s not a priority for me and it’s not something that I think is the best use of my time. I can refer them to someone else who can do it.
Either someone who has more time on their hands or is better suited to that or whatever, or I’ll often also give them, let’s say a link to a blog post. They want to ask me lots of things for free. I don’t have the capacity to do that anymore unfortunately. I might give them a few quick pointers to get them started, send them a blog post or a podcast episode or a resource. I’m not taking on something I can’t do, I don’t want to do, but I am still helping them and I’m still able to provide some kind of value.
Another way of doing this, by the way, is to suggest a different format. So, if they want to meet face-to-face on the other side of town, maybe suggest a call. If they want a call and you don’t think that’s going to be worth your time, can you get them to jot their notes down in an email or just create some kind of barrier, I guess, before…
If you’re bombarded like I am on LinkedIn with all these people who want to have calls and meetings, try to get them to give you more information before you agree to a call. Or again, if there’s lots of people asking the same things, why don’t you organise a group call or a training session? You gather people together. So that makes better use of your time.
So it’s no that doesn’t work. However, this other person can help you, check out this podcast. Can we do this instead?
Another one is not now. So not now means no to the immediate request right now. However, if the deadline is flexible, which usually it is, it should be, or if the same request comes up another time, you might be able to say yes. You’re keeping it open, you’re keeping the door open.
Remember, that urgent important grid that you may have heard me talk about through our workshops. The fact that something is urgent for someone else doesn’t mean it’s urgent for you. If it’s something that you are generally interested in doing, but you can’t now, you can say, hey, I can’t do that right now, but please keep me in mind for future opportunities, right?
Again, be wary of this though, because obviously you don’t want to just postpone everything. And there are some persistent people who will keep pushing you. So sometimes it might be better just to say no right away. But if you genuinely do want to do this another time, then by all means, not now.
Maybe. That’s an alternative to no, it’s not a yes. It’s not a no. So buy yourself a bit more time, tell them, you know what? I need to check my calendar or I’m waiting to hear back on another project. I can’t give an answer right now.
And that gives you time, a bit of space to think about it and make a more measured decision as to whether it’s a yes or a no, without the pressure of being put on the spot. And in fact, to be honest, this should probably be the strategy that we use for every request. Just implement a pause. Never say yes, or no on the spot, always give ourselves at least, let’s say 24 hours to think about it.
Do I want to do this? Does it fit with my priorities? What am I going to get out of it? What else is on my plate? Is there an alternative?
The next one is, can you tell me more? And this one again is probably a strategy we should always use. Often, we won’t get a lot of information about a particular request and simply asking for a few more details is going to buy you time and help you clarify if it’s really something you want it to be and should be doing. So make sure you really listen to the answer, obviously. So you’re able to judge the importance of the request for them and for you.
But it’s the kind of thing in the office that if someone goes, hey, can you come to this meeting? Don’t just agree to that meeting. Be sure that you have a clear agenda. Are you the right person to attend? Does it have to happen now? Really, hey, that sounds interesting. It sounds is important. Can you tell me more? And then I can make a judge judgement call.
And of course, people might be offended that you’re questioning their sense of importance, but you have to recognise that you’re responsible for your own time. And the fact that someone else says, hey, can you come in here right now? Unless by the way, it is your CEO or most important client, then maybe you do want to go in there right away, rather than question them. But most of the time, asking for more information is a good thing.
And then also yes, but. I had a no, but, but there’s a yes, but. And yes, but is really powerful. It’s a yes on your own terms, it’s a kind of compromise. You’re saying yes, to the request. However, I need more time. So getting an extension for the deadline, or I’m going to stipulate what I’m going to need in order to deliver. So, yes, I can do that, if you provide X, Y, Z by this time, or you make some kind of demand of your own, that’s going to ensure that you can actually manage this within their expectations, without jeopardising your own priorities.
So one of these alternatives, no, but, not now, maybe, can you tell me more, yes, but, can really help you to find a way out without having to say no. However, as we get ready to wrap up today, you may need to just say a straightforward no. Not a maybe, not a yes, but, not a not now, but just plain and simple no.
That doesn’t mean we have to be rude. As much as I admire people who say, nope, not interested, that’s not necessarily the best way to do it. And certainly I wouldn’t feel so comfortable with that. There are ways of rejecting people without being disrespectful.
So thank you so much for thinking about me, but unfortunately, it’s not possible for me right now and really validating the request. Oh, my goodness. I wish I could. That sounds like a really interesting project, however, or I understand how important this is for you, but.
And you don’t have to justify, by the way. I don’t want you to give them an insight into your long list of excuses. And also don’t lie. Be firm, be direct, be confident in the knowledge that you’re making the right call and you do not need to justify it. Just make it clear.
In fact, just as a parenthesis, I’ve read a study, I’ve come across it a few times where they did an experiment where somebody asked to use the photocopier, I think, at the office. She tried various different phrases and the most effective was just saying, hey, can I use the copier, because I have to?
So she didn’t even need to, there was another version where she said, oh, can I use the photocopier before you? She was trying to skip the queue, because my boss needs it or something. Actually even just saying, because dah, dah, dah, because I have to, was enough to compel people to let her use it. So it’s just to say you don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t give them a long list of reasons, because that then gives them the opportunity to go, but that’s not important. How dare you choose your family over me and say one, right? So be firm, be direct and don’t lie, of course.
But also again, coming back full circle to the idea of boundaries, I find people really respect boundaries externally too. Again, you don’t have to tell people that, I don’t work on Friday afternoons, because I like to be home with my kids. You just say, sorry, Friday afternoon doesn’t work for me. If you can be really clear up front, having really clear rules, that helps both you and the person you’re dealing with be clear on what’s possible within that established framework.
People generally respect a polite, but assertive no, much more than a shaky commitment or a begrudging yes that you then can’t deliver on. I provide WhatsApp support for my one-to-one clients. And as I said, first of all, I turned the notifications off. So I’m not checking every second. Sometimes when I’m in the middle of working on adminy stuff, then I’ll keep it on, so I can reply right away.
But in general, I do tell them, look, it’s office hours Monday to Friday, and I reply within 24 hours. So if people message me at the weekend, they’ll know that they’re not going to get a reply until Monday morning.
And then just as a little, fun alternative, if anyone’s a Friends fan like I am, you can always try the line that Phoebe used, when she responds, I think it was Ross asking her if she could help him unpack. She said, “I wish I could, but I don’t want to.” So, if that’s what you want to say, then by all means you can try that out. I think people respect Phoebe for being straightforward as well. So if you can pull that off, then by all means.
But I hope that was a valuable episode for you, in terms of setting boundaries, physical boundaries, also those mental boundaries. Remember, when we’re not comparing ourselves to other people, using technology to our advantage, by turning things off, shutting things down and so on, and also then getting better at saying no. I’ve given you some alternatives as well as reasons why saying no is so important.
So thanks so much, hope that was valuable for you. I will see you next week. Bye for now.
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