How to Say No Like a Boss – WMC Fest Talk

Turns out saying no to projects, unnecessary obligations, figuring out how to clear the plate, etc, is really hard because it means hitting pause for a second to zoom out to assess the bigger picture. Which can be nerve-wracking and if you’re like me, you’ll find all the excuses you can to avoid looking under the hood. If you know how to take the right approach this process doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but instead will define and shape your pursuits better. I realized this was the talk that I would’ve wanted to hear at WMC Fest, which also meant I had do it myself.

Slowly and with some effort, I offer you this: How to Get your Hustle Straight and your Commitments Sorted.

It has five parts. Just like the hand. Or hand turkey, rather. Why the turkey? Well, turns out people have been using their hands to draw bird shapes since prehistoric times, and you have your hands with you all the time making it harder to forget what your own hand turkey is. And, finally if you think about it, the hand turkey is probably one of the first commissioned project we receive as children from our Kindergarten teachers.

Pinky finger: your brand
What’s your personal brand? Even though “brand” is such a bizarre and slippery word, we all have one. It’s the code that comes from a deeper place that drives your life and your work. So regularly taking stock of your personal practices, how you want your life to be, and then, key part, make them official in some way that’s meaningful to you. Whatever it is, you have to do something with this knowledge. Then revisit this statement, project, THING that you’ve created for yourself when you’re faced with a prospect that challenges your brand or tried to modify how you work. Sometimes these challenges will be good and useful, but other times it’s not going to be a good fit. Without a strong sense of your brand you will have a harder time telling them apart.

The example I gave on how I first discovered my own brand and my process was my And, the Typeface project which I did in 2009-2010. How it told me something about myself that I recognized as powerful, something I’ve clung to and cultivated as I’ve continued on with my work. You can see more about this project here and here if you like.

And here is the brand statement I’m using to remind myself of myself these days. This changes, all the time, but it’s important to have a working model at hand (pun intended), always:

“I refuse to settle for design as merely decoration. My best work comes when I run my own process with clients & collaborators who foster progressive values and cultural growth that resonates with me. I also require time to maintain a blog because of the empowerment it gives me & my readers.”


Ring finger: the hustle.
You could have the most amazing brand, the most touching origin story, the best sense of where you want to go, but none of it matters unless you’re getting your work and your message in front of the right people. Are you offering it to the right places? How effective are you in getting clients to trust you and your process? Are you working with people who value your time and budgets? Are you leveraging your network enough? Not only in terms of finding new opportunities, but being aware of other people’s skills and strengths, which is something I wasn’t taking into account until recently. It’s much easier to pass on a project if you know exactly the right person who can take it and really make it sing. Knowing the right people to share my workload when it becomes too much is priceless.

Middle finger: Cash money, hoes.
There’s a reason this is the middle finger, because we all hate to talk about the M word. Which is so ridiculous because it owns way more of our lives than we like to admit. And if you’re lacking in the department it’s going to hurt, big time. This becomes even more key when you’re self-employed, so working on this gradually year by year will only pad your purse further. Obvious things like know what’s coming in the books and what’s going out, but did you know you might actually have to define what a profit is for yourself? I didn’t. This year I called up my Dad, as he often advises me on business-y things, and gleefully announced I’d made a profit after filing my taxes with my accountant. He congratulated me and then asked what my profit margin was, what percentage I kept. Pulled up short, I realized I didn’t know how to answer, and what I’d really meant to say was – hey! – I didn’t record a loss this year. Not the same as making a profit, genius. I realized I didn’t even know what kind of profit I wanted to make. You can make 1¢ as profit and it’s still a profit, but I’m sure you’d agree that’s a pretty pitiful goal. In the end, knowing how your financials stack up makes it much easier to not let money dictate which projects to accept and which are no-goes.

This goes hand-in-hand with having well-honed negotiation skills. If you can talk about budgets comfortably it’s a a HUGE trust selling point because it reveals key information on both sides. But you have to practice doing this, practice different scenarios, practice addressing red flags. Till you are blue in the face, I’m not kidding. It sounds cheesy, but find someone to role play it out. A few minutes of private awkwardness will save you, and earn you, so much more dough. Frankly, wheeling and dealing can be fun if you let it.

Pointer finger: time management
This is forever going to be gray area because it’s impossible to account for all the possibilities for loss. Forgotten laptop power cords, traffic, all the admin parts of our days, most email, one more quick revision, surprise last minute meetings. Human-freaking-error. And the more on your plate the more complex your Jenga game is, meaning the harder you have to work to keep everything moving, the trickier it is to rebuild if something shifts or gets held up.

At some point taking on more things means you’ll drop off in other areas. What are you prepared to give up if you bring something new into the mix? Something will drop out guaranteed, and you won’t always know what until it happens, so it’s better to redirect if before even getting to that spot.

Keeping a constant eye on my calendar and my to do lists the only common theme I’ve been able to assess from all of the time management apps and programs out there. However you chose to break up the hours in the day with the tasks you must accomplish, it’s a universal challenge so you better pay attention to what process works for you.

And finally. TAKE TIME OFF. I’m saying this to myself constantly because I find it so hard to allow. Time off is non-negotiable, end of story. Innovation is impossible when you’re exhausted. Your work will never grow if you don’t allow time to just be. I thought I could get by for years on one day off a week, tried for years to make that work, but it’s just not enough. I still don’t always GET a proper weekend, at least not yet, but at least I now I give myself a little bit of a break at some point later on when I can. In short, it’s impossible to work too much without consequences. There will be signs if you’re pushing too hard. Don’t ignore them.

Thumb: the work.
You’d think this would be the first finger, the most important one. Because without the work, the actual products or services you offer, there’s nothing right? And we’d all just love to be doing more of it, because really, it’s why we got into this in the first place right? Well, turns out, it’s influenced so intensely by the other four fingers. If you’re off your brand, you’re going to end up doing work that means nothing to you, if you aren’t working with people who pay you properly, if you have trouble managing your time, etc, these will all cut into your actual time to make things you love. So the more you continue to tinker with your four fingers means the better you’ll get at creating a set-up that makes you the happiest and the most productive.

This my friends, your five fingers, is the Guide to No. It’s meant for you to tailor and adjust to your own specific needs, revising it as you go. If you’re driving on a long road in the dead of night, the Hand Turkey is your headlights, showing the path ahead. If constructed carefully you can use it to illuminate the dead ends, the wrong turns, potholes. It may not be quite as exact at having a GPS to use…But honestly? Doing things, doing life perfectly is a bummer. Perfectionism is kind of a jerk, no one wants to invite him to their pool party.

Annnnnd there you have it, or a distilled version of it anyway. There were a LOT of questions after I finished which is always a great sign, and I know you’re going to have some too. Post in the comments and I will offer my thoughts.

Otherwise, this year’s greatest hits video of the event just dropped today, feels like it all over again!

{Image credits: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 }