Help! I Don’t Have Time to Help!

Advice from The Sherwins for November 2018

All Poured Out


Hi there, Sherwins,

Because I’m active in the design community, I get lots of requests for things that take my time—for a phone call, for a coffee, a lunch, advice, portfolio reviews, for mentoring. It’s people I know asking for themselves, for their friends, or for family members. It’s former students and sometimes it’s people I don’t know at all, people who’ve heard me on a podcast or at a conference. I try to make time for people I know well, but I don't have enough time for these requests. And, of course, I feel bad saying no without giving them an alternative.

How do you politely turn down these requests and help people get the advice and counsel they actually need?

L in Boston

Hi L, thanks for writing. You are not the only one in this situation. For a long time, we were right there with you. How did we deal with it? We just said no… and we moved on.

Note the ellipsis there. That ellipsis is where we:

  1. Felt bad about saying no

  2. Felt good that we were honest about our capacity

  3. Had a pang of jealousy that someone else was getting the chance to look like an expert and/or get paid

  4. Tried to distract ourselves from the idea of lost face and lost revenue by thinking about all the time we’d have to do something else now, deeply and with intention

  5. Sighed a few times, because all we’d end up doing with that extra time was stuff like laundry, which we knew was important but seemed like a poor trade

  6. Overthought it for a few more days, and probably again in a few weeks

That was the state of things for a long time. Obviously, not a sustainable one. Also, it was about more than just politely saying no.

When you decide to be an advocate, someone who supports the community or the industry at large, your boundaries can evaporate faster than you can say, “Sure! I’d love to help.” Part of this, at least for us, is that our personal lives were steeped in design. We had no downtime. As business owners, we didn’t “come home” from the office. And as we got more involved in the community, more and more of our friends were designers too. Like you, we teach, and every new year brought more portfolios and letters and emails for advice. Our networks grew and our happy hours and barbecues were filled with industry talk. We had months where we simply didn’t stop talking about work.

Some people are fine swimming all day in design. We are not. For us, there’s a fine line between swimming and drowning. We were drowning.

Is this a problem with design? With the way it’s become super-popular to talk about how design is everywhere? With the way we associate the successful among us with uncompromising identities: unicorn, rockstar, badass? Absolutely. But it was also a problem with us, with our inability to think about how we spent our time. About what it really means to share your time with others.

So here’s what we do now to handle all of that. These things have saved us time and effort, they’ve aided our creativity, and they’ve allowed us to keep going with our business as professionals and as people. They’ve also allowed us to deepen our friendships, even as the world becomes more chaotic and the industry seems to change course every day. Now when we give our time to others—whether students, clients, friends, or random conference people—it is with confidence and intention.

Some requests are jobs. You should get paid for jobs.

We tracked our hours and thought about how much a friendly cup of coffee was costing us. If we were providing the counsel our clients would expect from us during that coffee chat, how much money would that add up to? We use the “$200 cup of coffee” as a way of thinking about each new business conversation. And sometimes we use it to lightheartedly shift conversations with our friends away from work and industry talk, especially when people are seeking advice.

We work together to figure out how many “$200 cups of coffee” our budget can bear. Some months, that’s more than others.

While not all requests are jobs, all of them are partnerships.

These cups of coffee and portfolio reviews, these interviews and panel appearances, they require you and at least one other person.

Run through the last month of your calendar. Go through each meeting you had, each review and email, every correspondence you had that took more than 15 minutes of your time. What did you get out of it?

This isn’t to say that human exchanges are just means and ends. But it’s worth looking at the value you’re assigning to your time. Or, to turn it around, what are each of you contributing to this partnership?

For us, this was an uncomfortable exercise. We found that, in exchange for our time, what we felt most people giving in return was “making us feel good about ourselves”. Talking to others made us feel smart and capable. It made us feel like we had value, that people liked us. Our time was tied to the approval of others.

This is not a good way to go through life. Some day, we won’t have “value” like that. In the coming years, we’ll need to be seen as more than people who just give advice in sound bites or critique student portfolios. We’ll need to have friendships and relationships and a network where we are more than our audience reach. We’ll need to be around people who give us more than just deference.

Ah, who are we kidding? We need those things now. We’re betting that you do too. So when you’re deciding to say yes or no about something, look carefully at this partnership. You both need to be fulfilled by it. We say no to anything that presents an unbalanced partnership. This has become our touchstone, our non-negotiable criteria, a politeness we can give to ourselves and to others.

For any request, always be able to recommend alternatives.

Our last bit of advice is related to something you already feel. You said that you feel bad saying no without an alternative. There’s your assignment, L. Find alternatives to recommend. This is one of the more overlooked aspects of building a community: we’re all busy, yet we don’t take a lot of time to provide coverage for that community.

Find five or six people who are doing what you’re doing and thinking about the same things you’re thinking about. Email them. Ask if you can start a network with them. This is a new kind of network: trading recommendations, contributing mugs to that $200 cup of coffee, so to speak. There are going to be things that you’d rather be doing that someone else in that group isn’t going to want to bother with. For us, Mary loves talking to people about accessibility, while David is interested in social good. It’s not that we don’t like talking about those other things, it’s just that we’re better suited to and more energized by particular topics.

If you’re doing too much and trying to say no, you need to have a solid grasp of what you’re saying yes to. What do you find fulfilling? What wears you out? Do you have any requests that are what we call “diaper tasks”, the stuff that no one likes doing but that makes everyone happier when they’re done? Be honest with yourself about how you want to contribute.

This kind of network requires that everyone is able to raise a hand about particular requests and can clearly say no to other requests. This is about giving people the ability to swap their time and effort in order to maximize coverage. And, of course, give you a night off every now and then.

It’s foolish to expect that one person can meet the needs of an ever-growing discipline. There are no kings or queens in design. But that’s what happens when we can’t build a support system for ourselves. We need a network, and not for getting a job or finding a date. A network is about sharing expertise. It’s about stepping up when someone else can’t, and knowing that others can do the same for you.

It’s an enormous step in our growth as designers to not rely on exclusivity as currency. Our knowledge, our talent, our opinions—it’s all ephemeral. As people, we can not be duplicated, but when others seek out our time, a lot of what they’re looking for can be found in bits and pieces somewhere else. It just requires assembly. It asks an individual to seek out the pieces and put them together in a way that makes sense for them. Seeking a single source of advice applies a terrible kind of pressure on both parties: one can only give so much, and the other can only see so far.

We’re asking you to ask others to give when you cannot. It will have to be small at first, so that your network grows comfortable with exchanging and sharing. Over time, you’ll be building a vision of your corner of the industry, like a constellation in the sky.

It will take time for the people you’re referring to begin to see you as part of that constellation of knowledge, rather than a single bright star. And every person who approaches you is figuring out their own constellation, too. They just need someone like you to show them how it’s done.

All best,
The Sherwins

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Send questions to questions (at) askthesherwins (daht) com. All questions become the property of Ask The Sherwins, LLC and may be edited. Our advice shouldn't be construed as a replacement for the appropriate legal or professional counsel. This advice will vanish after thirty cups of coffee with breakfast and/or on December 1st.