By Symone Shinton
It’s month six of your new job, and you’re at the bottom of the totem pole looking up at a sea of endless emails commanding your time and energy. The moment you cross one task off on your to-do list, your phone rings, there’s a knock on your door, and you’re asked if you “have time” to get something out by the end of the day— as though you actually have the choice to say no.
But here’s the thing—you do have a choice. You can say no. In fact, you probably should.
When I started my first year of practicing law, I received a lot of well-intended bad advice, like “pay your dues,” “always be the hardest working person in the room,” “never say no,” and “always check your email right before bed and first thing when you wake up.” And I followed that advice. I regularly worked weekends, cancelled late night gym classes, and became well acquainted with the building’s night security staff. My job consumed my identity.
I responded to emails at 5AM on Tuesday, midnight on Friday, and 8AM on Sunday sent by colleagues who couldn’t even take the time to spell my name correctly. I allowed total strangers to control my physical and mental wellbeing. I believed the lie that I had to earn the right to control my own life.
And then it happened. An “emergency” assignment was dropped on my desk at the last minute—you know, the kind where your supervisor does not even make the time to give you instructions or remotely explain their expectations from you. I added twenty hours to my already busy week to meet their demands. I cancelled dinner plans. I cried at my desk.
Much to my chagrin, completing the assignment on the rushed deadline backfired. I was told weeks later through the grape vine of office gossip that the attorney had complained about me and, yes, my work ethic to anyone who would listen because I hadn’t followed a set of standards that were never even communicated to me. I had given twenty hours of my life and exchanged rest for cortisol, and this was my reward.
So I stopped. Just like that.
I stopped answering emails in record time.
I stopped answering them on weekends altogether unless a true emergency arose.
I set a cap on how much time I would work in a given week, and I communicated my own deadlines in response to the constant demands for me to work late.
People noticed. Some didn’t like it. Some stopped coming to me altogether.
But most of my colleagues actually respected me for it. They realized that my time is valuable, and that, if they don’t get on my schedule in advance, they won’t be given any of it. I regained control of my life and my schedule. For the first time since I became an attorney, I actually felt a baseline of sustainability and happiness at my job.
The truth is, you don’t need to be known for your prolific efficiency…you probably don’t even want to be. No matter how junior you are in your career, you have the right to command basic human respect. But it won’t come to you unless you do just that—command it. So stop believing the lie that you must endlessly trade your time to be worthy. Stop playing the game, and you’ll win it.
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