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Why helping others with a favor is dangerous & how to avoid it?

How far would you go to help somone you know

You toss your bag and yourself on the sofa after a long day outside. Not a minute passes before you get a call from your close friend asking that dreaded question that few can say no to.

Can you do me a favor?

Again? Just yesterday a stranger from work came to ask for help as well. You helping other people? Sure, why not? He may return the assistance one day and he’ll like me more. Hey, you never know.

But, now, it’s your friend with “will you do me a favor?“. Helping a friend is an automatic yes in your book. That call over, you head over to your bed and that’s when it hits you: you have a humongous project due in two weeks and have yet to begin.

Dang! Also forgot to follow up on your little sister’s astronomy project from last week. You sit up & start to wonder which to tackle first. Think. What did you learn from reading all those Lifehacker GTD articles? I need a priority list? No idea where to begin. Maybe you can receive an extension for your project tomorrow, maybe your close friend won’t mind postponing moving out, and perhaps the guy you don’t know well will understand that ‘something’ important came up & won’t be able to sketch him a free logo. Aaaaaargh! How do other busy people even get anything done?

The hidden problem in front of your face

The above should be reminiscent and on the surface it’s seemingly obvious as to where things go wrong. Yes, you overextend yourself when you agree to help others. Yet, many continue to trip over this because when requests occur in real time and span over days and weeks, we can’t see the overall implications.

But hold on one minute! They came to personally ask for my help. Won’t they see me as a jerk in refusing? Perhaps.

Helping people can be detrimental

The effects

As always, I learn lessons the only way: the hard way. In the past, I said yes to any and all and was bogged down but you know, you just know, deep down you shouldn’t have accepted. Certainly, you’re familiar with the miserable feeling while helping friends or strangers. It’s not the act itself, of course, but rather the time handcuffs imposed. Worse, you may find yourself working on stuff that, otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken. This can easily sap your energy and motivation and add more to your workload. Consequently, each “yes” is like one pebble, but keep adding more and you’ll feel the weight enough for it to interfere with your life and other projects.

Naturally, your answer to such requests is pleasing people and this isn’t necessarily bad. Helping the needy comes to mind but personal requests are a different matter. When you freely offer to solve others’ problems without any consideration to your own, you enter a risky path. The effects are multiplied if you’re not already disciplined in project management or lack good work ethics.

Doing favors

The most dangerous request one can receive is ‘could you do me a favor, please?’ Favors are different in that they subtlety plead to your soft side. But in the end all help requests are the same. The problem is a few take advantage to seek pro bono work and you end up with all the costs. But you know what? It’s not their fault at all. Not at all. It’s yours. Remember, asking doesn’t hurt, right? That’s all they did. You’re the one who eagerly nodded your head.

Why it hurts to help

As stated earlier, people helping others is not a problem. However, the key takeaway is this: whenever you say ‘yes’, you say ‘no’ to a million other things at the same time. Say someone asks you to travel to Puerto Rico for a year with them. If you say yes, now you can’t spend time w/ your family, you can’t travel to China or another country, can’t hang out with friends at the mall, any thoughts of shooting for a PHD is out the window (or at least it’ll be postponed), can’t look for a new job, etc. For every yes, you constrain yourself. Another reason to stay away from making promises. There’s a quote once came across that goes something like: the hardest thing you can say is ‘no’. Couldn’t agree more. It takes discipline and knowing your own priorities.

Are you saying never offer a helping hand?

Have you seen a crowded NYC street with humans colliding often? Chances are low that you have, either that or there were many drunks. Who is coordinating this movement? The overhead must be huge but, in fact, it’s rather simple. It’s down to each individual. To avoid bumping into one another, pedestrians follow these simple rules.

  1. Go forward.
  2. If someone is ahead, walk to the side where there’s an opening.
  3. Return to step 1.

These basic rules manage the movement of masses everyday. Similarly, overextending yourself can be prevented with a loose guideline.

When helping others make sense

Helping hands to pull people up

When it comes to helping, ultimately, it’s not even about expecting money or just friends helping friends out. There’s a nuance to helping out, or a distinction I like making.

  1. Needs support

    One where the person truly needs the help or is in trouble such as when someone loses housing, has no money, can’t find a job, need life advice/different perspective, has no one to turn to, everything is going wrong for them, depression, or etc.

  2. Wants support

    The second category of help is everything else left over, where if you don’t help them, nothing terrible happens or they can just as easily turn to someone else. In the big picture, it’s not that important. You may think designing a free logo for a colleague’s business is paramount but it’s not. In other words, one can consider this request for help more of a luxury & favor.

For #1, I’m more likely to help out. Everyone can easily find themselves in a bad situation & a helping hand here goes to make a meaningful impact. You can boil this down as the difference of needing vs wanting help. When people do need support & I can assist, I wouldn’t feel right just standing by.

For #2, I leave it to a case by case basis. Sure, it would be great if we could help everyone all the time. But I can’t. Here you should be liberal with your “no”s.

Social ties – the monkey wrench

Now there’s a dimension that needs to be considered which changes things slightly. Humans aren’t robots. We’re naturally social (well, some of us) and we’ll want to help our close ones more. What are close friends and family for if they can’t tend to each other’s needs?

One way to deal with this is by giving your closest friends & family a higher priority. If my schedule is free, I’ll usually help regardless. But if busy, and who isn’t, pass their request to the above filter. If not important and you still want to assist, then something needs to give. You can’t just add add add. Time to remove an item from your todo list. If you’re doing someone else a favor, either drop it or tell that person you’ll need to postpone. Remember, you’re doing them a favor. Not the other way around. Close friends & family comes first. Also look into dropping a project but if in the end you can’t remove anything, then don’t force it. You’ll have to say no to your close ones sometimes. You’ll end up hurting yourself if you push it.

Work requests disguised as favors

One last thing. Whatever profession you’re in, be conscious when people ask for favors related to your industry. You should expect payment for your work. Why use up your time to offer for free something normally paid for? If one had a retail store, strangers wouldn’t ask for free stuff, they’d know a business is a business. That’s not to say you can’t do pro bono work if you suggest the idea. Only bring this up since it happens more often than you think and unnecessarily adds to your workload. There are freeloaders out there who have no respect for your time. Definitely not worth killing yourself over.

To help or not to help?

Sure, others may dislike you and it’ll take time getting used to refusing people’s requests, but you know it’s going to kill you if you don’t have a filter set up. Although simple, this guideline is similar to the rules that prevent people from bumping into others in the streets.

Individuals may even get mad for saying no to them. But seriously? Mad? Because you don’t have the time? When you get overwhelmed, will they pull you out of your hole? In fact, if others don’t view you as easy, people will pick up on that and bother you less, making it easier over time. And when they finally do come knocking for a huge favor, you’ll know it’ll be important. Furthermore, with less favors going around, when you do help, you’ll do a better job. If the cost of not helping is disappointment & being viewed as a jerk, then that’s a fair price for a better balance on your end. The question becomes how far one’s willing to ‘suffer’ & for who.

Now, having said all this, don’t take this loose framework as anything more than that, a guideline. You can’t stand still watching others in need, but at the same time you can’t assist everyone to your own detriment. If you take anything from this piece, remember this: Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you should. This may come off as a mean way to treat people but it’s always a careful balance.

PS: By the way, if you like this essay, you might want to read this other one.

Photo credits: Jasmic, popofatticus

Filed under: do me a favor, helping others, helping people, helping hand

I don't know. Sometimes it feels like my writing & thoughts are way off. Who knows if it'll help anyone or if it means anything.

Written by Steve Villaverde