Saying No and Scaling Back: Separate, But Related Choices

I recently had a discussion with a fellow coach as part of the Third Tribe Marketing membership site, which connects small businesses with some of the top minds in social media and marketing to help them learn ways to build authority, increase their credibility and get more business.

The discussion was about saying “no” to some commitments so he could concentrate on his business.
He was having an awful time doing so, and I could definitely relate to where he was coming from. Like most of the people I work with (and like me!), he has multiple passions and only so much time.
His question was about deciding what to quit and when to quit it. I get it. When you have a business, and want to have a life beyond it, it makes no sense to keep on doing the wrong things, or dividing the time you need to spend on the right things. I suggested that maybe he just needed to re-balance his priorities.
I’ve said it once before, but it bears repeating: Work/Life balance is only a myth to those who won’t insist on it. Your priorities are your priorities. You get to set them.
There was a time when I worked at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, and was responsible for running a student organizations office that supported 32 student groups. I advised four of these directly, and assisted the other 28. I also coordinated the work of the committees for all of the college’s major student events, including a scholarship committee, two award ceremonies, and all of the major leadership and professional development events.

I left that job and went back to Residence Life.
In my first position back in that department, I supervised professional staff, planned training events for student and professional staff, created publications, and was responsible for 11 major department tasks and committees, including oversight of a resident assistant training class with 4 to 7 instructors and 70-120 students each semester; admissions events; orientation; welcome week; assessment and writing the department’s annual report. I had so many things on my plate that half the time I met with my supervisor, we talked about what I had been doing lately, and the rest, we tried to click through in our heads all the things I was supposed to be doing, because neither of us could keep up.

Now those were busy jobs.
Many people have busy jobs, and those were the duties. I knew that going in. These types of positions are classic student affairs jobs…you wear many hats, largely because of interesting institutional priorities and lack of funding to actually hire an appropriate level of support staff.


What I did in my “free” time was up to me.

Did I relax?

You tell me. Here are a few things I spent my “free time” doing during that period:

  • Serving on the “nominating committee” for my church to recruit people gullible enough to want to be on the board, or who could be guilted into it.
  • Acting as student outreach chair and advising the Penn State student group related to the church (yeah, another group!)
  • Teaching a 26-week sex ed course at the church for junior-high-level kids (10 of them) where they learned about not only plumbing and mechanics, but assertiveness skills, understanding sexual orientation issues, and discussing their values and the role they play in decision-making. (Did I mention this was an unpaid position? My standing joke is that this is about as close as an Unitarian can get to sainthood!)
  • Serving on the fundraising and events committee for a new non-profit that saved an old movie theater and converted it into a performing arts center. In this capacity, I helped plan a couple of concerts, a 5K and a certified mile race, and helped with open houses during the yearly arts festival.
  • I also took up gardening, got back into home brewing, and helped found a home brewers club. I was secretary of that group for a while.
Somehow I fit it all in. And for a while, it was okay. Then, I got promoted, had a different scope of responsibility, and my wife and I started a family. I supervised more people, had fewer work responsibilities, but ones with more impact on other people, and I had to learn to say “no” and to let some things go, and scale back commitments to others.

Eventually, I hit a wall with stress, being a new dad, and dealing with everyone else’s needs for my time and energy.
I had a health issue crop up, and things got much harder to deal with. Only then did I learn to say “no.” It’s not selfish to take a step back if you need to do so. At least not in the unhealthy, guilt-wracking way most people think about it. Instead, think of it as “self-preservation,” because that’s what it is, really.

I won’t say I did it without encouragement and support from the right people.
First, my family. My wife Sarah insisted I stop ignoring my obvious health issue and go to the doctor. My doctor insisted I see more doctors. And my supervisor told me in a meeting that she would support a personal leave of absence. I resisted for a while, but eventually realized I needed to step off the stress train and go look at some trees and grass and get right with how I was taking care of myself and with how I was viewing my work, my life, the world, and my place in it.

Here’s how I did it.
  • I started saying “I have some other things to deal with right now, and I want to take some time to sort out my personal priorities, so I will be scaling back some duties and not continuing with others.”
  • I offered to help with an orderly transition of tasks during my leave, and I did so.
  • Then I left, turned off the cell phone, stopped looking at work e-mail, and spent a few days all by myself at a state park lodge in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. It was the best thing I ever did for myself. Looking back, I realized I hadn’t given myself enough opportunities for comparison.
That period let me adjust my approach to work and family, and my priorities started to settle themselves out. I spent more time developing my staff, and less time criticizing them; more time talking with students instead of just at them and near them, and I started going home on time to be with my family, work in the garden, enjoy downtime, and think about the kind of person I wanted to be. It led me onto a path toward coaching, and eventually to this group.

Here’s where you have to be bold and unapologetic.
I was established at Penn State, and comfortable. You might even say complacent. I’d “topped out,” and after a few searches for the next rung up the ladder didn’t work out, I realized several things about my situation that I hadn’t reflected on enough. First, my opportunities to move up internally, which had been regular and self-sustaining for almost 15 years, dried up. Second, I had moved through the hard transitions of the previous couple of years, and was in good stead with my colleagues and supervisor. Third, the organization was most comfortable with me at the place in the organization I held at that time, and both of us were losing out on growth opportunities because of it.

That’s when I realized my priorities were hopelessly out of sync with where I wanted to go in my life and  career. So I took a leap of faith, and went there anyway.
It meant leaving my job, moving away from a place I had called home for 15 years, and making new friends. I left at a weird time of the semester (about 5 weeks before Winter closing.) I didn’t want to leave then, because of the weird employment gap it left, and how some people would interpret it. But we had bought a new house, had a buyer for the old one, and I really didn’t want to  move from Pennsylvania in December, anyway. So I planned my transition as cleanly as I could, left the lines of communication open, and stepped boldly into creating my own life and career.

I realize that for many, this would have been completely insane.
For me, it was only mildly so. I had savings and investments to lean on, the support of my family, and a plan B. (I moved to a college town just in case I needed a more stable stream of income, and I keep the lines of communication open with my old colleagues, supervisor and references, in case I need to get that next job.)

I’ve concentrated my efforts on being recognized as a likable authority in relation to higher education careers.
I’m  learning to provide content that enhances that reputation and build testimonials that will speak for me. I know I talk too much and that it annoys some people. I can only say I’m working a little on it, and the rest is just who I am. If you respect the value of my advice, knowledge and skills you’ll move past it. What content “expert” isn’t a little bit of a pain in the ass every now and again?

But I’ve digressed, so let me return to you and hopefully help you to focus your efforts:

My questions for you are these:
  • If you can’t fit your priorities into your life, is it your life or your priorities that are the problem?
  • How could you re-order them without “throwing out the baby with the bath water?” My bet is that you can. And if you are going to get where you need to get, you must.
  • So which needs and priorities are you going to feel worst about not meeting: yours, or those of others?
  • What’s the role of faith (in yourself, or something greater, or both) in your career? And how do you know when it’s time to “take a leap?”

The other truth you need to embrace, if you are to move forward, is that the world doesn’t rest on your shoulders. The programs you support will go on, if people are committed to them. You can still be involved in a lesser role if you want to be. You can do your own thing, without walking away mad, or burning the bridge behind you.

To think any less is to imprison yourself by meeting someone else’s expectations. Let them go. Focus on your own. You deserve to be happy and get where you are going.

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