“How I finally learned to graciously say ‘no’ at work”
A letter from editorial director, Lisa Smosarski

Last week I had the honour of interviewing two inspiring women, entrepreneur Tskenya and equality lawyer and podcast host Kelly Thomson, at a Brilliant Breakfast fundraiser for the Prince’s Trust. I was wowed by the energy and intellect of both women and how easily they spoke on topics as broad ranging as the importance of arts and culture in childhood to the need for allyship right now. In fact, there was only one question that stopped them in their tracks: “How do you both say no?”

The pause in their response and the sea of heads nodding back at us reminded me just how hard it is for women to say no at work, even when we have reached positions of influence or authority. The ‘good girl narrative’, a desire to people-please and a severe lack of positive role modelling on this makes respecting our own boundaries particularly challenging.

I experienced this unspoken expectation in my first role as a junior writer. Despite doing what I understood to be a good job, I was pulled aside one afternoon by my manager and told it had been noted I was saying “no” far too often. I was blindsided, unaware that when asked if I had time to take on another task, I was only supposed to give a yes, regardless of how much I had on my plate. I was duly mortified, and in a bid to never be pulled aside again, my inner people-pleaser kicked in. It took me over a decade of overworking before I found the power to say no again.

The turning point for me was understanding how to say no in such a way that I didn’t feel I was being disrespectful, dismissive or lazy, and it took someone saying no to me so graciously to learn exactly how to do that.

This “no” arrived when I was chairing an industry committee and needed to recruit judges for our prestigious annual awards. I had approached a peer over email who replied: “Thank you so much for thinking of me. Although I would love to join the judging committee, I don’t have the time right now to give it the respect and attention it deserves.” I remember the words so clearly because they stopped me in my tracks – they were exactly the words I had been looking for (and, incidentally, I have used them ever since).

When I shared this with Kelly and Tskenya they built on my words, suggesting that the response could be finished by asking: “Can I help you to find someone else instead?” I love the idea that while closing the door on your own participation, you can open the door for someone else who should be at the table but who might not be given that opportunity normally.

So next time you find yourself about to say yes when you want to say no, stop and ask who else could benefit from this opportunity instead. It’s a powerful way to protect your boundaries, strengthen your network, be an ally to others and most importantly turn your no into a yes for someone else. 

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One thing we learned about the art of the career pivot

Our latest Stylist Network event, in partnership with Google, was all about pivoting to a different career. It was packed full of so much great advice and wisdom that it’s hard to pick just one tidbit, but a message that kept coming up is that it’s entirely OK if your pivot isn’t sudden, big, and dramatic: you can take your time.

“This is a slow journey,” shared Nadia Shireen, whose journey from sub-editing at Smash Hits to writing and illustrating hugely popular children’s books took multiple years of gradual steps.

“We can sometimes look at people who’ve done pivots and think they just overnight did it,” she told us. “That’s not the reality. I had to tell myself it was OK to take my time. Even if you do one thing a day towards a goal, it’s worth doing. It builds up.”

Work smarter: limit your to-do list and ultimately get more done
Deputy editor Ellen Scott shares insightful hacks to make work that little bit easier.  

You can’t do everything. We know this, and yet we load up our to-do list with tens of tasks that we have no chance of ever ticking off. I’ve been there. And the result is always the same: feeling overwhelmed by the length of the list each morning, then rubbish when all the to-dos aren’t done by the end of the day.

What finally snapped me out of this routine was a notebook I picked up in Hong Kong. It had a page per day, with a notes section and a spot for a to-do list, but here was the catch: that latter section only had six bullet points. Each morning I had to get specific about what my priorities were. I had to recognise that just as the notebook only had room for six ideas, realistically, my mind and time could only handle the same. Knowing I had six things that were vital for that day made me far more productive; rather than flitting between half-finishing lots of requests, I made sure my list was complete.

Sadly, I’ve finished that notebook and am now back to doing my to-do list digitally. But I’ve stuck to narrowing it down, because I’ve found that approach so helpful. Not everything on your to-do list needs to be done that day. Get more focused, work out your priorities, and give yourself a limit on how many you can and should do, rather than noting down all the things you could do. I also recommend tying this approach with time-blocking, but we’ll get into that in another edition of Work Smarter.

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A success coach‘s 4-step method to find your true calling
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Image credits: The Stylist Group; Getty
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