My wife and I had an argument last night. She came home livid that she was buried under another huge extra set of work. I stupidly made it worse because I told her she needed to learn how to tell her boss that she was working on “this list of things,” and doing the new list would deprioritize the existing list and put them at risk of not getting done. I should have know better. In the military you cannot say no.

She came home today and told me someone had said no and was heavily disciplined. And, then another person, when told to do a large set of extra work, said to his superior officer “Sir, with all due respect, we are all juggling 25 glass balls, so if you could tell us which of these is higher priority that would really help.” And, the superior officer said “no, just do it.”

She wanted me to know that in either case there was no way out, and even the person who had elegantly stated what I was telling her to do had been forcefully rebuffed. In the military, no one says no.

But, the critical question for me still is: was this truly an elegant way to do it? What are the motivating factors in getting someone to understand it is in their best interest to not drop more work on you?

Would it have helped to say: “My day plan was to do these five things, each of which are two hour tasks.” Would a commanding officer care about this? They would likely argue about your estimations, or judge you lazy. It is in their interest to find holes in your assessment of cannot get things done. In the same way that when my wife told me her two reasons, because my identity is connected to the idea that I am right, I wanted to argue with her. And, she is connected on an identity level to the opposite conclusion.

Is there a way to use Stanford behavioral science professor BJ Fogg’s methodology? Trigger, ability and motivation? What are the triggers for behavior for an officer? Could you say yes and then use alternative methods later to motivate an opposite response?

A critical question is whether organizations are succeptible to trigger, ability and motivation. The structure of many military organizations looks to me like there is little space for ability and motivation. They have designed things so that people cannot back out of going into scary places when the mission is defined as doing that. But, I wonder if a side effect is that this makes it abnormal to affect change. Every organization needs to be able to change in this modern world, I say, or it will whither and die.

Unless it is federally funded, of course.