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Why Setting Boundaries And Saying “No” Is Emotional Work

In the depths of prehistory, there lived a man named Ugg, who possessed an unwavering habit of saying “no.”

As his family ventured out to gather branches for a shelter, Ugg adamantly refused to assist, claiming he had more pressing matters to attend to. Even when his siblings pleaded for his help during hunting expeditions, Ugg turned them away. The tribe began to resent him, perceiving him as a lone wolf unwilling to contribute. Eventually, the elders made a grave decision—to cast Ugg out into the unforgiving wilderness. Left to his own devices, Ugg confronted a bitter truth: saying “no” had dire consequences leading to hunger, cold, sickness, and ultimately, death.

Fast forward to the present day and meet Jane, a descendant of Ugg’s tribe. As a manager and team leader, she is struggling to balance her overwhelming workload. Each day, Jane finds herself consumed by a never-ending stream of online meetings, an ever-growing list of projects, a flood of emails, and countless requests flooding her Teams inbox. Despite the mounting pressure, Jane’s knee-jerk response is to say “yes” to every demand that comes her way, often at the expense of her own well-being.

Why does Jane struggle to say “no” despite her overloaded schedule? Why is it difficult for her to set boundaries with remote colleagues, even when saying “yes” is at the expense of spending time with loved ones, including family and friends?

WHY WE STRUGGLE TO SAY “NO”

Productivity expert Cal Newport sheds light on why the majority of knowledge workers are perpetually overloaded. While everyone seems to be busy, workplace research reveals a consistent trend: most knowledge workers report being approximately 20% overloaded, leading to chronic stress.

This 20% overload phenomenon isn’t limited to specific professions. Engineers, teachers and journalists are 20% overloaded—even productivity consultants like myself are feeling the pinch! But what exactly is causing this widespread issue?

It’s unlikely that managers in various professions coincidentally assign tasks that exceed their employees’ capacity by exactly 20%. The problem is more complex than a few bad bosses making our collective lives miserable. Something else is going on.

Here’s where Ugg and Jane come in.

According to Newport; “The drive to interact with others is one of the strongest motivational forces humans experience … the social networks in our brains are connected to our pain systems, creating the intense heartbreak we feel when someone close to us dies, or the total desolation we experience when isolated from human interaction for too much time.”1 When we push back and set boundaries in a communal workplace, the result is emotional pain. It may be the logical thing to do from a work management and productivity perspective, but it feels emotionally hard to do.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense.  In hunter-gatherer societies, being popular and having strong social networks increased the chances of survival. Stronger networks meant access to more food, support, and security, making individuals more likely to pass on their genes. To set boundaries was to risk disappointing others, making “no” both emotional and risky to do.

Of course, it’s not that we never say “no.” Most people do push back when the pain of saying “yes” surpasses the anticipated pain of saying “no.” It’s at the breaking point, when we’re overwhelmed with projects, exhausted from working on weekends, and drowning in overflowing inboxes, that accepting a new assignment becomes infeasible. This breaking point typically corresponds to a workload that exceeds our capacity by around 20%.

In other words, the majority of knowledge workers wait until they reach a certain level of emotional pain and psychological stress—around the 20% overload mark—before granting themselves the internal permission to push back and say “no.”

The result? Many of us operate in a perpetual state of chronic stress, burdened by workloads that exceed our ideal capacity. Our prehistoric brains are ill-suited to the always-on, digitally connected nature of the modern workplace, with back-and-forth requests from an ever-increasing work tribe. And because we dislike the pain of saying “no,” we end up reactive, distracted and exhausted.

EVERYTHING WORTHWHILE IS EMOTIONALLY DIFFICULT

Overwork and overload can be daunting challenges, but there are ways to outsmart our ‘Ugg-like’ brains and reclaim our lives. Here’s what you can do:

First and foremost, be kind to yourself. Many of us struggle to set boundaries and manage workloads precisely because we care about people. Being helpful and a team player are admirable qualities and worth celebrating, even if they sometimes result in us taking too much on.

Secondly, saying “no” is a skill that requires practice. Don’t strive for self-mastery right away. Just like any complex skill, start with small steps and build upon what you learn. There are numerous ways to say “no,” and in a future article, I will delve into various strategies you can employ in different situations.

Finally, recognise that saying “no” is emotional work—and that’s perfectly okay. As social beings, we are hard-wired, biologically, to live in relationships with others. Once we acknowledge that setting boundaries is challenging, we liberate ourselves to feel pain and fear along the journey. Almost everything worthwhile is emotional—think of public speaking, getting fit, asking someone out on a first date, starting a business, traveling to new places, changing careers, or learning to be a parent—so let’s accept this and move forward.

LEARN TO SAY “NO” FOR A GREATER “YES!”

Once we shift our perspective, remarkable things can happen. We can say “no” in the pursuit of a greater “yes!”

In the words of author Natalie Lue, “’No’ smells like the beach. Because when you don’t say ‘no’, you don’t get to go to the beach!”

To broaden this idea, “no” means spending quality time playing board games with our kids instead of burying ourselves in emails. It means taking a leisurely walk on the beach rather than finishing that document. It means making space to indulge in baking a cake, enjoying a massage, writing a song, or getting lost in a good book. By proactively shaping our schedules through the power of “no,” we make space for meaningful relationships, creative activities, and deeply fulfilling experiences that often elude us when we fail to assert ourselves.

Remember, setting boundaries and saying “no” is not an obstacle, but a catalyst for a more intentional and balanced life. Embrace the challenge, reframe your mindset, and unlock the possibilities that lie beyond. It won’t always be easy, but the rewards are immeasurable.

In the end, it’s our ability to say “no” that empowers us to say “yes” to what truly matters.

Are you struggling to set healthy boundaries and balance your workload? If so, you might be interested in exploring this topic further by joining our Productivity Masterclass program in 2024.

1. Reference: Cal Newport in “A World Without Email” 

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