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Modest Change: Learn the qualified "yes"

This is something I've mentioned before, but since it's worked so well for me I think it deserves a place in our Modest Changes series.

I've had a habit over the years of allowing myself to get so busy that "no" becomes my 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.

I'll also share that this "yes, but..." approach also works great for honest-to-God work, as well. It means that my client and I have a fair and honest understanding of how quickly and often we can expect each others' full attention as well as being able to generate a hard number to guide when the clock is starting to run down. You wouldn't believe how priorities re-align when people see that 80% of the time or budget is gone.

I realize this approach won't work for everyone in all situations (I think I'll go ahead and get that tattooed on my forehead), but I've found it to be a really valuable way to stay involved in the things I enjoy without promising the world to anyone who asks for it.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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