Are you a “sponge” at work?

The idea for this article was given to me by friend when we met for lunch in New York two months ago. During our conversation we realised that lot of women we know are “sponges”, and that characteristic or quality is what is holding them back in their careers and wrecking their work-life balance.

So, what do I mean by “sponge”? A “sponge” is someone who is great at saying yes to almost every task or project that they are asked to do even if it means they have to sacrifice their own goals, plans or free time to be able to deliver on the yes. Not only are they great at saying yes, they find it almost impossible to say no. Because they are usually great delivering, other people (especially superiors) tend to continue asking them for more. Does this description resonate with you?

Have a go at the “sponge-test” below and find out where you fit on the “sponge-scale”:

For each question in the table below just write down the answer that most applies for you. Then add up all your answers to your total.

Now that you have your total, find out below how much of a “sponge” you are, and discover some key tips on how you can stop being a “sponge” and become more selective and focussed about saying yes to everything.

22-28 You are a super “sponge”
The word ‘no’ does not seem to exist in your vocabulary when it comes to doing things for other people. When someone asks you to do something for them or take on another task, you do not even take a step back to check whether you have time, it fits in with your goals and objectives or you know how to do the task. This has a major impact on your work and home life, as you are always running out of time, your task list gets longer and longer and you often sacrifice your free time to catch up. Your health and personal development suffers, and you are likely to feel stressed.

Three key tips for you to consider are to:

  • consolidate your to-do lists including all your own tasks and other people’s you said yes to. Decide for each of them, if you really, really need to do it, it’s still relevant or if someone else can do it (delegation), and then strike through whatever is not relevant and delegate whatever you do not absolutely have to do. Then plan in and schedule the remaining tasks into a diary, initially allowing at least double your estimated time for each task.
  • practice saying no until you feel comfortable doing it. Go back over the requests from the last month that you wished you had not so readily accepted. Play them through in your mind and say no instead of yes. Imagine future requests coming to you and practice saying no to those too.
  • be clear about your must do’s for your goals and your role at work. Write down your must do’s and put them somewhere you can see them during the day. When a request comes in, tell the requestor that you will consider it and get back to them with an answer within the hour (or next day, depending on the urgency of the request)! Then check against your objectives list, your schedule and your own motivation whether this task is right for you. When you say no to your requestor, offer suggestions on who else they could approach, so you are still helpful.

15-21 You are an aspiring super “sponge”
Although you have the ability to say no, more often than not you fall into the trap of saying yes, despite yourself. Often the things you say yes to are related to your job and might take you forward in your career, however you find yourself working long hours, sacrificing week-ends and free time and thus neglecting your health, friends and other personal development.

Key tips for you are to:

  • become totally clear about your current commitments and how much time you have or don’t have for anything extra coming in. The easiest way to do this, is to diarise every task and allocate a duration (do include contingency)
  • know what you want to achieve in your career and what you need to do to get there be it promotion/personal development etc. Make sure you diarise and schedule those activities!
  • learn to negotiate with the requestor, especially if the requestor is your boss. If you know what you want and you know your commitments, you can check against those when any request comes in. Like the super sponge, make sure to consider before you give a response to the requestor. Offer options, if you feel you have to say yes, e.g. I do not have time this week, however I have time for this next week. how would that work for you? or if this is urgent, I could move xx (also requested by them) to next week?

8-14 You are on your way
You are able to say no to things that do not fit in with what you want or what your job requires. however, sometimes you succumb and find that you are working longer than you wished, or have to sacrifice your gym session (or similar) to finish something at work you wished you had not said yes to.

The key tips for you is are to:

  • set clear boundaries with the task requestor, and be clear how much you can deliver in the time you actually have available.
  • negotiate delaying other tasks if this particular task is urgent, and
  • agree with your boss which of your non essential tasks you can delegate to other colleagues who would benefit from the experience.

0-7  Congratulations, you have it sussed!
You obviously know what you want and are able to say no to things that do not fit with your objectives and goals. The only danger you could run into is saying no too often. Remember, it is OK and good to help out others even if their request does not fit in with our goals, so don’t just say no for sake of it.

Today you have now taken the first vital step towards “de-sponging” your worklife, which is awareness! The tips above are not exhaustive and there are many more ways how you can reduce your “sponge” like qualities. So, do experiment and find out what works best for you!

Let me know how you get on!

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