Several years’ into my career, I had a mentor / supervisor who seemed like she knew how to do everything. She was invaluable to the senior management, the ultimate go-to girl for everyone, the girl who had everything under control. I was in awe of her; even though she was only a couple of years’ older than me, getting to that point in my career where I was that important to someone seemed a long way off for me. So I asked her, “how do you know how to do all this stuff?”. And her answer threw me through a loop; “I don’t. I just say yes, and figure it out later.”
I realised, to a certain extent, that’s exactly what I’d been doing. Without detailing every win and loss I’ve had in my adult life, I went from finishing university with a degree I wasn’t interested in, to being the primary content creator for my employer across social media, YouTube and the blog. I was also their national event coordinator with a position they created for me, all within 4 years. A few years’ later and with a different employer I’d built more than 4 websites on WordPress and taught myself how to use InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator and Lightroom (with varying levels of proficiency).
Fast forward to 2018, and I decided I wanted to try my hand at working for myself. For better or worse, every good and bad thing that’s happened to me in my career since leaving uni at 21 has come from saying “yes” to whatever came my way that seemed like more fun than spreadsheets and answering phones.
Now, after basing a career on saying “yes”, I’m learning how to say “no” instead. Even while in awe of that supervisor, I could see the problem with what she was saying and doing. Saying “yes” to everything meant she never said “no” and therefore had no boundaries with her superiors and next to none with her subordinates. She worked crazy long hours, answered emails well into the night and made sure she was always available when needed - even when on leave. Even while working for someone else, that’s not healthy, but doing it when you work for yourself is a recipe for disaster.
As small business owners, we sometimes lose the ability to say “no” because saying “no” can seem terrifying. “No, I don’t know how to do that” or “no, that’s not enough money” or “no, I don’t have time to take that on right now”, can all lead to loss of income and the loss of a client. So of course it’s scary. But creating boundaries in your work and keeping them - whether self employed or not - is essential for your own survival and the survival of your business.
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But how do you set boundaries in your small business?
- Understand your workload
Properly map out all your projects from start to finish with every task allotted a worst case scenario timeframe. Then add in more time for the unexpected. This will help you understand exactly how much time you have leftover for other projects, other clients or your own personal work. Make sure you’re completely realistic, factoring in breaks, lunchtime, and physical activity. Set those time boundaries and stick to them. Now, when a client calls asking for help, you know exactly how much time you can give them, and when they can expect results.
- Understand your limits
You should have a pretty good understanding of how you ‘work’. Maybe you’re the most productive first thing in the morning, or later in the evening. Maybe you need to take breaks every hour, or go for an hour long walk after lunch. Maybe you work well for 12 hrs straight and then need to take a day off. Whatever it is, however you work, understand those limits and work within them, without judgement. And ignore the pressure to do what everyone else is doing, work how everyone else is working. Just because an entrepreneur you admire woke up at 6am on a Sunday and worked for 4 hours, doesn’t mean you have to as well (she said, looking into a mirror).
- Stick to your guns
A quote is a quote. A no is a no. Offline is offline. On leave is on leave. You make an exception once, and you’ll make it again, and again and soon your clients will come to expect it of you. Make an out of office reply, your best friend. Allocate set hours for when you'll be checking your inbox and make sure your clients know they can only expect a reply within that time. Discourage clients from calling you without notice by making a shared calendar available to them so they can book in a time that suits them.
So after a career of saying "yes", my new lesson is how to say "no" instead. It definitely won't always be easy; a lot of the time it will seem very scary. I'm still learning to do this one myself, but it's all part of the learning process of having your own business!
Have you learnt to say "no" yet in your small business? How has your business and mindset changed since then?
Cheers, Laura x