As many people have commented at one time or another, we could get so much more done if there were just more hours in the day. Obligations pile up everywhere: duties at work, commitments to social groups, quality time with the family and time out to spend with friends... For whatever reason, there always seems to be some kind of demand (or worse, a polite request) on our time. Yet this wishing for more time in the day is missing the real point of the problem, which is actually quite different.
What's the problem, then?
To be entirely fair without being harsh, we are the problem. More accurately, it's our inability to say no. We accept new burdens because we want to be helpful. We take on harder projects because we think we can handle it if we just work it out properly. And we acquiesce to little requests because, after all, they aren't that big of a deal, are they?
Soon enough, we've said yes to so many things that there isn't enough time to do all of them healthily. We end up cutting into our sleeping, eating and recreational time to make room for all of our big activities, and in the end we suffer for it. For some reason, the idea of cutting out some of our excess commitments doesn't seem to occur to us. However, if reducing stress really is the goal, it's time that we learn to use the power of a well phrased 'no.'
Making No a Habit
Step 1 - Start Thinking
Put an automatic moratorium on any request that doesn't give you time to think about things. If it's anything larger than handing a bit of paper to your coworker because they're out, ask for five minutes to think about it. For bigger issues, ask for more time to think things over, up to an entire day or even a week.
In many cases, the problem lies in accepting requests automatically. Someone presents their case to you and sounds like they genuinely need help, so you say 'well, alright,' and automatically bend yourself to their need. Then they know they can rely on you, so they come again, and you say yes again... and you can see where this is leading.
If the request is genuinely important -- but not an emergency -- it can allow for a bit of time that you can use to think things over. Thinking about the problem might allow you to see a different solution, or recommend someone who has less on his or her plate, or even that you really can't say yes after all. Sometimes the best 'no' is phrased as, 'not right now.' Make it as automatic as saying yes was previously; no matter what they ask, tell them you'll deal with it after you've had a chance to think. This will help you build the habit as a strong, reliable defense mechanism.
Step 2 - Stop Small
One of the easiest ways to get into trouble with time management is in accepting small requests for your time automatically, because they're so small. After all, they don't take up much time and aren't asking a whole lot, so why not?
However, we've discussed how every behavior can become a habit. If we begin saying yes to small requests on our time without thinking about them, we train ourselves into a habit of doing so, even when it might be advisable not to do it.
As an example of the impact a small request can have, consider a day you have planned out. You get up, make breakfast, see the family off to school and go to work. You have your day planned out so you can leave work a few minutes early and go home, thus beating the rush hour, when someone asks if you'll just real quick run this one file upstairs, it won't take half a second. Then you get caught in the rush, and you get home feeling frazzled. Only a small inconvenience perhaps, but imagine what will happen when you make it a habit, day in and day out?
Start finding ways to politely decline small requests, because you don't want them to become a very big headache.
Step 3 - Start Committing
We all make plans. Plans are a good thing; they help us order our lives and tasks so that we can spend less time doing what we don't like and the most time doing what we love. It's when these plans go awry that stress begins to make itself known, and this is the very worst time to bend on our convictions.
We do have a right to stick to our plans. Yes, perhaps we haven't seen our friends in a while and it wouldn't take that long to have a fun night out, but maybe we really did just want that nice quiet dinner at home with our favorite album playing and the phone turned off. No one has an inarguable right to our time, and just because someone asked is no reason to derail our plans.
There's never any call to be rude, of course, but there is plenty of call to be firm. If you've made plans and your first gut reaction to any request to change them is, 'but I was going to...' then politely say, 'I'm sorry, but I have plans.' Don't feel you have to explain them. Often times doing so will invite the interrupter to compare or dismiss them. Simply state you have plans, and they can't be changed. Do not bend on it. Keep it up for those first three weeks that are needed to build a good starting habit. Soon enough, saying 'no' will become so easy that the times you do say yes will be all the more meaningful.