Learn When to Say No.

The one skill that’s been most helpful to me professionally, more than any tech knowledge, is knowing when and how to say “No.”

Obviously any profession has certain skillsets that are required for basic completion of the relevant tasks. Architects need to be able to sketch designs and understand building stress points. Firefighters need to know how to hook up hoses and where to aim the water for best coverage. I’m a front-end developer; I need to know how to write proper XHTML and CSS, use Photoshop, and manage project timelines.

Even so, none of the various technical abilities I’ve acquired over the years are as important as simply knowing when it’s necessary to say “no” to people. It’s a “soft skill” but it’s just as vital as any knowledge of coding languages, operating systems, or tech support tips. I’ve learned that saying “yes” all the time leads to nothing but stress and ultimately sub-par work. You end up trying to please all the people all the time, and it’s just not doable.

I think too many people have this idea that it’s unacceptable to say no (or worse, to hear it from others). There’s a fear that saying “no” will somehow make them look incapable of handling the work, make them look like they can’t be trusted to get stuff done. They’re half right, technically. There’s a point at which workload outweighs available time, and when that happens the work will suffer, the person will suffer, and the client will suffer.

No one wants that.

I’ve learned — the hard way — that my health (mental and physical) and my output are directly affected by my ability to regulate my workload effectively. Knowing when and more importantly how to tell people that you can’t currently oblige their request is absolutely critical to keeping yourself in balance.

I just wish more people understood that.