The Power of Saying “No”

By Andy McHugh

Want something done? Ask a busy person.

Being “busy” is something I’m known for and to some degree I’m proud of it. Saying “no” doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because I don’t want to miss out on the latest thing, or because I don’t want to disappoint someone who has asked for my help. But the problem is that over time it can lead to overwhelm and, crucially, opportunity-cost.

So, to counter this problem, when planning the goals for my department over the coming months, I’m keeping three questions in mind:

(1) what will I keep doing?

(2) what will I adapt?

(3) what will I stop doing?

You might have noticed that I don’t have “What should I start doing?” in my list of questions. This isn’t because it’s unimportant, it’s because it’s a highly problematic question. It’s risky, as “adding more” can take me away from the core priorities of my role, spreading my time too thinly. There is also an underlying and toxic tone of “you’re not doing enough” that accompanies the question and it’s one major reason why many teachers burn out and sadly leave the profession that they should thrive in.

But these aren’t actually my primary concerns. What I’m much more mindful of right now is that if I take on another “thing”, it leaves less time for me to do other “things” that are also valuable, or might even be more valuable.

Now, those of you with your “strategic leadership” hats on might do a quick analysis of which activities provide the most value to you, rank-ordering them and binning the least useful ones. It’s an effective way to begin tackling your needlessly-crippling workload and it frees up your capacity to pursue more worthwhile goals. It’s not enough though.

How can we make time for those activities that bring excellent value, but which we aren’t already aware of?

If I delete my least productive tasks and replace them with more productive ones, this increases my effectiveness, to a point. But If I’m then operating at capacity, I will miss opportunities to do things that I routinely turn down, due to being “too busy” – even if they would provide exceptional value.

How many times have you turned down going to an event, running a club, planning a trip, or organising a guest speaker, because you just don’t have the time? I’d wager you probably did have the time, but instead, it was filled with some other activities that, when you look back on them, weren’t as impactful, or even necessary at all. And we all suffer from this, from Teaching Assistant all the way up to Trust CEO.

This absence of “slack” in the system prevents staff from having adequate thinking time, opportunities to try out things that may or may not work (but are still worth trying) and, yes, to occasionally work with slightly less intensity, between the frequent bouts of ultra-busyness we’ve all unquestionably become accustomed to, so that we can keep “going again” with gusto.

In my opinion, if we’re going to be serious about dealing with the retention crisis in teaching, we need to address this personally, not just systemically. If we don’t individually get our own houses in order, where we can, then what hope do we have that others will too?

So, from this January, why not try saying “no” more often. It seems like a good way to get more done, sustainably and with a positive impact on your own well-being. It’s a start at least.

I’ll still be super-busy, but I’ll also be happy, doing “better” things, sticking to my core purpose more closely and with the capacity to do more when that unmissable opportunity presents itself.


Editor of HWRK Magazine, Andy is a teacher, Head of RE and Senior Examiner who loves nothing more than a good debate.

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