Physicians: Learn to Say No to Say Yes to Work-Life Balance

January 31, 2012

Regardless of our unending enthusiasm for new projects and new opportunities, we remain finite in our time and energy and focus and resources.

Enjoying a glass of wine with some friends last night, I stumbled across an all-too-common problem in the course of our conversation. One of my friends was describing her role on the Winter Fest committee for her son’s school. Her enthusiasm for the role was waning as the responsibilities piled up. We could all relate, having volunteered for our own share of school, church, or social obligations that we soon came to regret. As the conversation continued, we tried to solve one of the great philosophical mysteries of our time: Why do we say yes so easily?

It’s got me thinking why I say yes too frequently, too quickly, and with too little thought. This is the list I came up with:

• I don’t want to waste what could be an amazing opportunity.

• I feel guilty - if I don’t do it, who will?

• I feel obligated because I benefit in some way from the greater organization and should “pay it back.”

• It’s something I really would like to do, if only I had the time.

• I’m asked by someone I respect/like/fear.

•The invitation or opportunity takes me by surprise - I say yes almost reflexively.

• I may never get the chance to do this again.

• Because I can.

The list could continue for several pages. I only have to think about the last dozen things I’ve agreed to. A while ago, in an effort to achieve work-life balance, I made a rule for myself. I wouldn’t say “yes” to any commitment or opportunity for at least 24 hours and until I discussed it with my husband. My husband, it turns out, is a great mirror in which to reflect on why I would say yes. Sometimes he agrees with me - “sounds like a great opportunity, do it.” Sometimes he just looks at me in wonder, clearly considering whether I’ve lost my mind.

I have to admit though that years of automatically saying yes is a hard habit to overcome. As a result, I’ve frequently brushed aside my self-imposed dictate to wait on and discuss opportunities and leapt in, sometimes to my regret but often to my enjoyment. One of my friends summed it up well. “But I like doing all these things.”

Trouble is, regardless of our unending enthusiasm for new projects and new opportunities, we remain finite in our time and energy and focus and resources. Saying “yes” to everything, in the end, means we say “no” to something else - our sleep, our family time, and sometimes our sanity.

So, in the pursuit of work-life balance, I am reminded of the big things I need to say “yes” to on a regular basis and that the things I value require that I say “no” to both wonderful and not-so-wonderful opportunities on occasion.

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