How to Say No When They Ask “Got a Minute”

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Oct 9, 2014

Got a minute?

The fact is, unless you are a great rarity today, you not only don’t have a minute, you have a yawning deficit of minutes. There is work unfinished on your desk. You have personal aspirations of all kinds that you never find time for and obligations you barely find time for. You’re already stretched for time, so no, you don’t have a minute.

Yet when almost anybody asks, “Got a minute?” you automatically answer, “Sure, how can I help?”

How do you stop doing that?

Name the Problem

As they say in all the therapy circles, if you can’t name it, you can’t fix it. Here’s the name: It’s not a minute – it’s an interruption.

A minute freely chosen and freely given is innocuous, but interruptions are thieving little intrusions that spoil our lives because of all the havoc and frustration they trail behind them. There’s the interruption that throws you off task. There’s loss of momentum due to the work stoppage. There’s the time wasted reassembling your thoughts and resources. There’s frustration at having to rebuild them, which dissipates the energy that work thrives on. There is the distress and fatigue of having to make up for time lost. All of these things can cause errors and the need to do the task over again, which of course takes even more time.

Recognize the Cause

Why do you say yes when inside you’re going, “God grant me patience, how will I get everything done?” Because you’re afraid – not shaking in your boots afraid, but you have fears. If it’s your boss, you’re afraid he or she will think you’re not responsive to any needs but your own or you can’t handle your workload. If it’s a customer, you’re afraid they’ll take their business elsewhere. If it’s your colleagues, you’re afraid you won’t sound like a team player.

Know Your Facts

Facts are mother’s milk to good decisions. If you have a budget with X dollars a month to spend on eating out, then there’s no agonizing over should we or shouldn’t we. The dollars tell you yes or no; no argument, no drama.

You need the same facts about your time. You need to have a solid, walking awareness of your Critical Few – that handful of things that are so important that leaving them undone will cause serious problems. That means separating them from your Minor Many – that long list of things that should not, but often do, distract us from our Critical Few.

Don’t Say “No”

That seems like unnecessary advice. You’ve already rejected “no” because you don’t want to sound like a selfish jerk. But the opposite of “yes” doesn’t have to be “no.”

I would like to give you my full attention. May I let you know when I can do that?

Some version of those words needs to be custom-tailored to every got-a-minute interrupter, or “Time Bandit” on your list – customers, boss, colleagues, family, and friends. They let your interrupter know that his or her best interests aren’t served any better than yours are by this interruption. Most of all, they keep you from sounding like that selfish jerk you dread sounding like. Scripting your negotiation and rehearsing its delivery, tailored for each of your main “Time Bandits,” will banish any remaining fear.

Make It A Gift

Even though you can’t give your time on the spot, you do have a valuable gift to offer your “Time Bandit”: your full concentration and interest at a time of mutual convenience.

In this day and age, when it seems like all parties to every transaction are only about half there – the other half distracted by devices, alerts, the pressure of work undone, and the dismal prospect of ever catching up – it’s no small thing to offer your would-be Time Bandit your full attention to his or her needs.

When you say, “I want to take care of that for you, and when I do, I want to be focused so that it will have the excellent quality both you and I expect,” they will not only be mollified about your current unavailability. They will be gratified, which is what you want. And you get to keep your “minute.”

Image: Gualberto107 /
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