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Yes or No? My Week of Whiffling, Shilly-Shallying, and Fence-Straddling (Plus 5 Tips for Making the Right Decision)

Agonizing over a decision? Me, too. These 5 strategies helped me make up my mind.

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Thanks to a work-related epiphany, I recently articulated something I’ve been struggling to, well, articulate. I will say no to projects that do not serve me, I announced (mostly to myself), pleased that my resolution was both practical and pithy.

Let me explain. I’ve worked for myself for most of my career. Thanks to both my professional drive and my desire to be able to afford food, I’ve said yes to almost every wordsmithing opportunity that’s come my way. After more than two decades in the biz, I realized I’ve earned the right to say no if an opportunity isn’t a fit for me.

Naturally, a few days after I made this shiny new commitment, the Universe laughed hysterically and proceeded to kick my butt.

To make a long story short, I was asked to illustrate a children’s book. I dabble in visual arts, so this opportunity seemed golden: creative, collaborative, challenging, and fun. I’d even get paid for my efforts. (The budget was slim – “skinny” is more accurate – but, frankly, I was surprised any money was involved.)

I tentatively agreed to do the work … and immediately started having doubts. The smell of my freshly baked resolution wafted in the air: Exactly how would this project serve me? I wasn’t trying to break into the book-illustrating industry. The creative challenge was enticing, but I wasn’t sure my artistic skills were up to snuff. As I calculated how many hours I’d be spending on revisions for each illustration (and, thus, not working with or finding other editorial clients), the budget shrank from skinny to anorexic. The fun factor dwindled accordingly.

For the next four days, I vacillated, waffled, and wavered. I hemmed and hawed. (According to my synonym finder, I also shilly-shallied, fence-straddled, and whiffled.) Most of all, I got really stressed. I lost sleep and was not always kind or gentle – especially to myself.

Through this anxiety-ridden, sleep-deprived haze, I tried to figure out what was really going on. I was a pro at saying yes. Saying no felt foreign and uncomfortable. Would “no” mean I was close-minded? Afraid? Unqualified? I hated thinking any of those words might apply to me. Now I started to wonder — was this a test of my ego and not my professional abilities at all? I knew ego-driven decisions were rarely smart, sound, or prudent. Things were getting more complicated by the minute.

Regardless, I had to make a decision. I took a deep breath and tried to calm my agitated brain. Here are the strategies that helped me the most.

I listened to my gut. If your abdominal region is churning about a decision, don’t dismiss the discomfort. Tune in to figure out what’s off (assuming it wasn’t that burrito filled with questionable meat).

I was realistic about my skill-set. It can be rewarding to do work that stretches your knowledge and ability. But if you force your professional muscles to stretch too far, you may twist yourself into a knot. Ouch.

I did the math. Budget constraints aren’t necessarily a deal-breaker. When the bucks-to-benefits ratio is right, unpaid (or low-paid) hours can be deeply rewarding. On the other hand, if working for minimal moolah makes you feel undervalued, proceed with caution.

I played the “Imagine if” game with a trusted advisor. You know this exercise: “Imagine you turn down the contract. How do you feel?” Or, “Imagine you accept the offer. Now how do you feel?” This mental and emotional check-in is exponentially more helpful when you do it with someone you deeply trust.

I listened (finally) to my gut. This one’s worth repeating. If you’re wrestling with a decision, find a quiet place to sit, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. What bubbles up? Chances are, it’s the answer you’re looking for.

When Monday rolled around, I sent an email to clarify the full scope of the project (another valuable strategy). As soon as I read the response, I knew with absolute certainty what I had to do. I graciously bowed out.

That night, I slept for nine hours straight.

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