I frequently work with high-performing managers who ask me, “How can I manage my time better?” What I often find is that the problem isn’t time management—it’s over committing. 

How familiar does this sound: 

You have a jammed pack day of meetings, and as you walk from one meeting to the next, your boss passes you in the hallway and asks you to get something to her by close of business without missing a step. You haven’t even processed what she said until after she’s ducked into her meeting. 

Or you are working on one task at your computer when one of your peers instant messages you asking for help on a project since you are known as the “go to” person for this kind of thing. 

Maybe you get asked to head up a new committee because the work directly impacts the other work you do, or because you’ve led similar committees before, or because they can’t find anyone else to do it.

“But you don’t understand,” you say. “I can’t say no. No one says no here. You’re expected to say yes.” And boy, do I understand working in a “can’t say no” culture. I worked for years for a large consulting corporation that expected to hear “yes” every time. I even got dinged on a performance appraisal one year for the one time I said “no.” My performance was overall exceeding expectations, I was meeting my billable hour requirements, and I was simultaneously attending a rigorous post-graduate program. I told my boss that I couldn’t lead a business development proposal effort that week because the brunt of it overlapped with three consecutive days I would be attending classes and I literally was not available. I couldn’t believe it when he wrote me up on my review as needing to work on making business development a priority when that was literally the only time I EVER said no. I get the whole “you can’t say no” thing. 

Ironically, while I was out of the office attending my classes (and not leading a business development proposal), I learned that my responses didn’t need to be so black and white. I always thought of my options as being “yes” and “no.” Is that how you view it? 

I have good news: we aren’t limited to “yes” and “no.” Chalmers Brothers, in Language & the Pursuit of Happiness outlines four different ways we can respond to requests for our time and energy:

  • Yes: acceptance; now we have a promise
  • No: decline; we do not have a promise
  • Commit-to-commit: a promise to get back to the requestor with the answer at a specified time
  • Counter-offer: a decline of the initial request with an offer to accept if certain conditions are changed

So how does this work? Let’s break down these four types of responses.

Yes. Well, you’re already an expert at saying yes. But what if you reserved “yes” for the times when you are clear on what is being asked and know you have the bandwidth to make and fulfill the commitment. 

No. Yes, I know that’s the scary word. And guess what? You don’t have to use this word very often if you learn how to use the next two responses more effectively. 

Commit to Commit. This is a great strategy to use when you’re caught off guard, whether it’s during a “drive by” tasking in the hallway or when you’re put on the spot during a meeting. You respond with something like, “Let me check my calendar and I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.” Or, “I’ll check with my team and let you know by 2pm tomorrow.” You get the idea. You don’t commit to the request, but you commit to getting back to the requestor by a specific day and time. This buys you some time to take a deep breath, assess the request, see how the new request will impact current commitments, and give a confident answer. 

Counter Offer. This is what you use when you kind of want to say no but feel like you’re supposed to say yes. You can negotiate conditions that would turn the request from a “no” into a committed “yes.” For example, if someone asks if you can get something to them by close of business today, you can respond, “I’d love to help you out with that, but I’m booked solid the rest of the afternoon. Can I get it to you by noon tomorrow?” Or, “I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth to lead that committee right now, but I think Tom would do a great job. What if I mentor Tom while he leads the committee?” You aren’t saying, “No,” you are demonstrating you are trying to say yes if you could just tweak the conditions a bit. 

Back to the boss tossing a request at you on your way to a meeting: First, you want to get a more formal request from the boss. After she casually lobs the task to you, I’d respond with, “I’m happy to come by your office after my meeting to discuss particulars.” See—a “commit to commit.” Then, once you hear more about what the boss needs, why she needs it, and by when, you can either say “yes,” “counter offer,” or “commit to commit” again after you’ve had a chance to delegate to your team. Ah, delegate—another great word, and an article for another time!

So are you ready to try this out? Next time you get a request from someone, instead of responding how you usually would, try a counter offer or commit to commit, and let me know how it goes!