Other people won’t set boundaries for you

In her recent and wonderfully honest Substack post, writer Emma Gannon talks about those moments when you open email / LinkedIn / Twitter and have a message from someone that includes the words ‘can I just pick your brains?’ It happens a lot. Folk read your profile and ask if they can grab 10 minutes with you to discuss how they could shift careers, moving into your field. Nine times out of ten, it’s someone you’ve never met or had any contact with. You can’t blame them. They’re taking their shot. However, if you get a flurry of these messages and keep saying yes, you suddenly find you’re not a writer/editor/creator anymore. You’re a full-time, unpaid coach. 

Here’s what Emma says about it: 

“People don’t realise that their request might be small, and understandable, and worth a shot, but if ten people are doing that each week to one person (which they do) then my whole week could be dedicated to this. I think my people-pleasing tendencies contributed to my burnout. Anyway, it’s up to me to say no. Turns out that when you say yes to a million ‘small favours’, people take and take and take — you might end up in bed for a week. Because other people won’t set boundaries for you.”

I found myself nodding furiously reading this. I find saying no impossibly difficult, especially when someone is asking for help. My natural reaction is to blurt, ‘of course’, not considering that Future Cav’s day will be torpedoed when he has to fulfil these commitments. As James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says: 

“Saying no saves you time in the future. Saying yes costs you time in the future.

No is like a time credit. You can spend that block of time in the future.

Yes is like a time debt. You have to repay that commitment at some point.

No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.”

As freelancers, we have to remember that our time is absolutely money. If we’re not working, we’re not earning. That’s not to say you have to be constantly earning, but you need to weigh up the choices you make with that in mind. By doing ‘this’, you’re not doing ‘that’.

And the ‘that’ might be relaxing. We all need downtime, to rest and recover. We can’t fill every moment of our day with work. We need to refuel, to recharge, to give us the energy to keep going. It’s taken me a long time to realise this blatantly obvious fact, simple though it sounds. And if I agree to all these ten-minute chats, when do I have them? Crammed around deadlines during periods when I’m supposed to be recovering. 

I’m not saying don’t help people. I would never say that. Our industry is built on relationships and networks. I want to help whenever I can. But as Emma says, it’s up to you to set boundaries, to work out if you can afford the time. Saying ‘yes’ to yourself often means saying ‘no’ to others, no matter how painful that is. 

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