Happy new year, friends! We hope you all had wonderful holidays.
I’m a huge believer in saying “yes,” and so is Mr. ONL. Saying yes is a big part of why we’ve succeeded in our careers – it’s why our colleagues and our clients love us, even as we lament the toll it takes on us. We are willing to deal with the hard stuff, and we do the tasks others don’t want to take on.
And we want to say yes more in our lives outside of work – especially saying yes to our friends and family more, and saying yes to more experiences. I wrote a whole post about it: A Life of Yes.
But this year is different.
This is our last (planned) year of real work, and we’re starting this year with a line in the sand: This year we will set boundaries. We will not let work continue to dominate our lives.
We will learn to say no.
So here we are in 2017: our Year of No.
Caring Isn’t the Problem
Something we thought a lot about in the second half of 2016 was whether we should or even could care less about work, or whether we should disengage ourselves more from it. And we realized: not caring is not in our DNA. We are simply people who give a $#!@, and giving fewer of them would require fundamentally changing who we are.
But we also realized that our “caring continuum” isn’t the right way of looking at things. The single axis continuum suggests that if caring a lot brings stress at work, then caring less might be the answer. The world would clearly be a better place if fewer of us were inundated with work stress, but the world would not be a better place if fewer people gave a $#!@. We need more people caring, more people working to improve things, more people investing themselves in important causes. Combining caring and stress into the same axis is a false association.
Instead, we’re now thinking of caring and stress in two dimensions:
Caring isn’t the problem, and even caring too much isn’t inherently a problem. It’s the combination of caring too much and not setting boundaries to keep work (or anything else!) from taking over your life. Here’s what our 2017 goal looks like on the two-axis model:
So now we have our heads straight about caring, and we’re determined to keep being people who care, people who invest ourselves in what we do. But, we need to be realistic, too. 2016 nearly broke my spirit, and though work wasn’t quite that bad for Mr. ONL, it still gave him plenty of new gray hairs. So we need to change something if we’re going to get through this last year of work with our health, our sanity and our marriage intact.
The answer: Boundaries.
Still Caring, But With Boundaries
We both work remotely for companies located far from where we live, and while we mostly hear comments along the lines of, “You’re so lucky for getting to work from home!” (we are, and we know it), the HUGE flipside of that is that – as every remote worker knows – you are always more expendable when you work off-site. Maybe it’s the out of sight, out of mind mentality with management, maybe it’s the assumption that you must be goofing off or doing chores at home instead of working, but remote workers are often the first to be cut when times get tough. And when you combine that concern with my gold star-seeking tendency and Mr. ONL’s need to prove himself, you get a strong feeling that you can’t say no to things.
For years, we have both felt that saying no would create a ripple effect of being perceived as slackers or not team players, becoming less valued, and then becoming expendable. In a small town, you can’t get a job comparable to the ones we have, and so we couldn’t risk losing these jobs before we got to FIRE (ahem, golden handcuffs). That meant: always saying yes. And we wouldn’t change that, because we do care, and because saying yes has clearly served us very well over the course of our careers.
But now things are changing. Because they have to.
Breaking Out of the Handcuffs
The best thing that happened at the end of 2016 was we crossed the point where we’re not only FI (which we hit around the end of 2015), but we now no longer need to work to retire comfortably. Working a bit longer will let us retire fully and a bit more comfortably, but we’re now at a point where we have lots of options, and can have a kick-ass retirement with just a little side work. Now we’re just working to fill in the margins. We also assume that if our companies let us go at this point, we’d get decent severance packages in recognition of our long tenure, and those should be enough or almost enough to get us to our numbers.
So the pressure to say yes to everything is officially off. We could lose our jobs tomorrow, and be just fine. Our dream is secure at this point. :::pinching selves:::
Learning to Say No
It’s one thing to talk about saying no, but quite another to do it in reality. And we are pathetically out of practice at it.
We’re each figuring out what saying no will mean, because we have some different circumstances at work that affect what “no” can look like. But just thinking about when we’ll say no doesn’t actually teach us how to do it. To do that, we’ve been talking a lot about it, to buck each other up in our quest to set boundaries. We’re reminding each other of how rough 2016 was (not that we need that reminder!), and how we simply won’t make it however long in 2017 we end up working if we don’t change things. We’re reminding ourselves that we no longer need these jobs, and if we’re now perceived as contributing less, it’s okay. We’ll be okay.
But it’s still going to be a very different way of behaving at work for both of us, and we fully expect there to be a learning curve. We’ll report back on how it goes.
My Criteria for No
Our bonuses work differently, and I had some incentives piled up last year that don’t apply this year, so I’m really not working for a bonus this year the same way Mr. ONL is. That means that I don’t need to focus on being as profitable as I’ve tried to be in past years, because my pay now is what it is. I got my last promotion years ago, my last raise at the start of this year, and I’ll collect my last incentive over the summer. None of that changes based on my performance from here on out, and if I do get laid off, I’m going to push to still get that incentive pay-out because I won’t be leaving by choice. So because the money pressure is now completely gone, I can take more of a legacy focus at work. That means saying yes to projects that let me improve systems and provide opportunities to people, and saying no to a lot of the rest.
Here’s what I’ll be saying “no” to:
- Any new project that will push me over an acceptable number of hours (aiming for under 50 hours per week)
- Any new project that I don’t find fascinating or important in some way
- Any project that doesn’t let me improve company or client processes
- Any project with no opportunity to mentor or develop junior staff
- Any project involving teams or clients with bad vibes
Of course the flipside is that I can say yes to things I’ve not been able to focus on in recent years, now that the money pressure is off. Things like:
- Projects where I’m not the lead (not “my revenue”) but where I can still be helpful
- Projects that sound fun but aren’t super profitable
- New business proposals that are fun to work on but wouldn’t actually be my projects if we win them
- Taking more time to invest in and manage staff
- Creating professional development opportunities for staff, to pass on what I’ve learned and set people up to thrive after I’m gone
Mr. ONL’s Criteria for No
Mr. ONL is still very much working for a bonus, whether it’s for the full year or in hopes of the mythical pro-rated bonus (or even a retirement thank you bonus). So he’s thinking about his work in 2017 very differently. Plus his work is more independent, not team-oriented like mine, so his opportunities to work on processes and mentoring are more limited. That means his calculus is more about maximizing earnings while minimizing time and stress.
Here’s what Mr. ONL will be saying “no” to:
- Projects with toxic clients (though he will still bring them in and find ways to hand them off, so he still gets credit)
- Projects with a tiny profit margin, that require more time than they’re worth
- Projects where he won’t get the revenue credit in his bonus, because the work is owned by someone else
And he’ll be saying yes to things like:
- Projects that might be too small to be worthwhile, but could translate into low-stress side hustles in retirement
- Projects that come with opportunities to travel to different places or gain exposure to possible future clients for limited part-time work
Saying No Means Saying Yes
This year represents a big shift for us – preceding many more shifts to come later this year or very soon in 2018 – and we still don’t know how good we’ll be at actually saying no as we aspire to. But what motivates us to try hard at it is knowing that saying no to some things means creating space to say yes to other things. We want to remember what we love about our jobs, and to get back some satisfaction that we’ve had in the past but haven’t been as in touch with lately. And we want to know that we’re leaving our jobs in better shape than when we got them.
Ultimately, we’re not saying no for its own sake. We’re saying no to create space for yes.
So 2017, the Year of No, is really just a preamble to 2018, the Year of Yes. And we can’t wait.
Psst. We have another big “No” that we’ll share more about in Wednesday’s post!
What’s Your 2017 the Year of?
You know we always love hearing from you guys! So tell us… do you have a theme for 2017? Anyone else focusing on boundaries or saying no like we are? Or doing the opposite and saying yes more? Got any other big financial or life goals for the year you want to share? We’d love to cheer you on!
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