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Week 4 - Navigating Demands on your Time, Energy, and Attention

Week 4 Navigating Demands.


We each have people or tasks that demand our time, energy, and attention – usually many more than one human can tackle.  This week we will discuss how we can optimally manage the requests. Hopefully, you crafted your own purpose-in-career statement from last week’s exercise.  You will use that and your core values as part of the process. If you haven’t done it yet, take the time to work through it, as it will be valuable for today’s blog.


Many of us have developed less adaptive habits of managing the various requests at work, at home, and in life in general. Those habits include deciding to participate in something from a place of people-pleasing, reputation management, self-judgment, and plain old procrastination. These frankly add to unnecessary suffering via an overloaded to-do list and a burdensome mental load. Sprinkle in some guilt and shame for either saying no or not getting it all done, and voila, you can be miserable. (I may tackle those habits in the upcoming blogs.)


I offer you my algorithm for saying yes, no, or maybe later to demands (you can download the graphic here). 


Before we begin, I want you to remember that you have agency within the demands. For instance, laundry is a choice. You can choose to have clean clothes by laundering them yourselves, dropping them at a wash-and-fold laundromat, hiring a housekeeper, taking them to professional cleaners, wearing dirty clothes, borrowing clean ones, or having a perpetual shopping issue to restock. Even deciding to feed your child is a choice; the reason you do it isn’t really out of obligation but from a place of love and care for them. (That’s not to say sometimes you don’t order Doordash or have “fun supper night” where they grab something out of the pantry themselves 😉.) Jury duty is a choice – you want to be a good citizen and/or not be fined. Remembering your agency is essential for your mental health, even if it doesn’t decrease the number of requests and tasks.


  1. Values, Purpose, Priorities, Goals. When something is asked of you, evaluate if it aligns with your purpose statement, values, priorities, and goals. If it is in opposition to these core principles, decline it or find a way to pivot so you’re not in that position further. If you’re unsure, buy some time by saying, “let me look into x, y, z first and get back to you.” If it is in alignment, then go to step 2.
  2. People-pleasing. Are you considering saying yes because you are factoring in only what the other person needs? If so, the answer is to decline. If it has nothing to do with people-pleasing, go to step 3.
  3. Guilt or fear of it (“Obligated”). Are you considering saying yes solely because you will feel guilty (or fear you may feel guilty) by saying no? If so, then the answer is no. We can discuss how to lose the guilt in future blogs. If guilt or fear of guilt is unrelated, then go to step 4.
  4.  Do you want to do it? If not, then why haven’t you said no already? Just because you CAN do it and do it well doesn’t mean you have to accept it.  If you do, then go to step 5.
  5.  Do you have the time, energy, and attention to do it? Yes? Then awesome – give them a resounding YES! If no, then go to step 6.
  6.  Is it more important than something else you can give up, thus making room? If yes, then stop something and say YES.  If not, then decline.


Navigating demands does not mean you approach things from toxic individuality. Too many of us have poor boundaries born out of the appearance of service (those habits we formed). So, before you consider everyone else’s needs, you have to get back in touch with your own. There is a healthy tension here. You want to carry your own weight, but if you end up resentful, overloaded, guilt-ridden, stressed, regretful, and shamed – how good a team player, partner, or parent are you? How long will I be able to sustain that before taking a leave? This model can be applied to teams. There will be times you want to do something from a place of service for the team (even if you'd say no if it didn't involve the team). And there are times that you maybe tempted to overfill your plate for the team even when you don't want to. That's where the resentment and overwhelm can begin to fester. 


If you struggle in the opposite direction - never saying yes - there are better ideas for you. Perhaps I’ll address those in the future.


Using this algorithm doesn’t mean you don’t utilize your work ethic or self-discipline. I offer this algorithm to physicians who got here with a good work ethic. I wouldn’t necessarily use it for teens who have difficulty getting off the sofa. You made it this far; stop worrying that you will become lazy if you stop the hustle.  So much of the fulfillment in life comes from putting in the effort, making an impact, and seeing the fruit of our labor. At this point, I don’t think you need anyone to tell you to put in the effort.


The art of saying “No.” Dr. Sasha Shillcutt would have you remember that “No.” is a complete sentence. You don’t need to give lengthy justifications. Only reveal things you want the other person to know. You can work up to how that comes out and own it and the silence or reaction afterward. Having your scripts decided, rehearsed, and ready to go is helpful.  When you need to create time to think it over, instead of automatically saying “Yes,” you can say:


  1. Let me check my schedule and get back to you.
  2. Let me discuss it with XYZ and get back to you.
  3. Let me think about it for a week and get back to you. (Don’t make it indefinite because it’ll just keep adding to the mental load.)


I recommend those only if you really want to consider the request. Otherwise, if you know you don’t want to or can’t, using this tactic will add more time, mental load, and task (responding) and delay the inevitable.


Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, gives three parts of declining an offer:


Step 1: Affirm the relationship. “Great to hear from you.”

Step 2: Thank the person sincerely for the opportunity.Thanks for thinking of me.” “I’m honored you considered me.”

Step 3: Decline firmly and politely. “My current priorities dictate that I must decline.”


In his book, he reviews several declination ideas.

  1. The awkward pause. Count to three before answering with a non-reflex answer, or allow them to break the silence.
  2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I am (blank) right now, but I would love to after (blank).
  3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
  4. Use e-mail bouncebacks. Out-of-the-office messages can be “I’m in (focused work) until x and will not see your email. Thank you for understanding.”
  5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” In academics, you are often asked to write a white paper, serve on a committee, or take on a project. When It’s your boss, it can seem challenging to say no. “I’m working on x, y, and z. What would you have me deprioritize.”
  6. Say it with humor. I need to decline as I’m no longer a fan of sleep-deprived hallucinations.
  7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” If you’re asked to give an extra talk, you could say, you’re welcome to borrow my notes/slides. I am willing to email them to you or leave them on your desk.
  8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” This would be an excellent opportunity for so-an-so to grow. (Only offer this when you are sure it may be a welcome challenge for someone else – otherwise, use one of the others.)

One final thought - everything you do doesn't have to align with your purpose. You want to slowly increase it to at least 20% at the same time, you ensure you are not doing things in direct conflict with your values. Because doing the latter is where moral injury happens. 

Hopefully, this process can create some space to lessen both your to-do list and the cognitive load associated with delayed decisions or feeling resentful or guilty. Next week, we will dive deeper into those habits I mentioned. 

Have a joy-filled week!  Tonya

Download the graphic algorithm for cleaning up your "yes" "no" "not now" decision-making. Get it here.


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