PEOPLE: ‘Saying no is a complete sentence’ – Catherine Ngo’s secret to time management

Catherine Ngo is a writer, presenter, CEO, and more. With a diverse and extensive career across HR, marketing and business, we asked Catherine for some of her learnings along the way and how she applies this to her day-to-day.

  • What has been your biggest career learning to date? What errors/mistakes did you make along to way that had to happen for you to realise this learning?

My biggest learning is that our careers are not linear. We’ve been conditioned to think that success means we should all aspire to climb that ladder – the higher you climb-up, the more successful you are – but I have realised that’s not true. The mountain view is not always great if you don’t appreciate the journey and the people you have worked with along the way. 

I started my career in human resources and have now ended up in marketing and events. I was a little resentful at first that my pay was impacted but I am much happier now. My variety in my work brings me joy.

My belief is that a career should give you that flexibility to go sideways into a new world, explore that world, move across and repeat. My skill set is diversified which has been intentional to future proof myself. It also helps that I am a curious learner which I think is important.

  • What has been the most rewarding part of your career? What makes it rewarding and do you look for opportunities to replicate this?

The people I get to work with is the most rewarding. I have a few projects going on across multiple businesses. The variety gives me the freedom, choice and control over who I work with.

It’s easy to just settle for one comfortable job (and there is nothing wrong with this) that probably pays more for now but I believe we don’t thrive when we’re in our comfort zones.

Entrepreneurship is in my blood. I cannot deny my existence. This means the way my brain works is that I’m always thinking of and taking on new stuff. It doesn’t stop because the adrenaline is just so addictive (but be warned, it has its cons such as the occasional burnout).

  • What would be your advice to your 20-year-old self? Why?

Two things – ask for help more and feedback and help. I’m a Taurus and we taureans are stubborn. Asking for help is a sign of strength because we have it in us to admit that we don’t know and have everything. The worst thing to do is BS your way into things. People see right through it.

  • What’s your secret to time management, and juggling so many different responsibilities?

I still don’t think I have it right, but I’m getting better and better.

  • Eat the frog — As Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Eating the frog means to just do it and get shit done. Otherwise the frog will eat you and you’ll end up procrastinating it the whole day. This means I tackle all the high value activities at the start of the day when I’m fresh and leave mundane admin tasks at the end of the day because it doesn’t require as much brain power.
  • Set boundaries — saying no is a complete sentence. We’re all busy and having too many meetings or doing tasks that don’t bring value or joy is a waste of time. We can’t make everyone happy. It’s hard because we all want to be liked and we don’t want to offend. It’s in our very human nature — But this in the long term is doing more harm than good. I found out when I say no more often, (within reason of course), that my mental health and well-being was much better. I felt in control.
  • Work life balance is BS — We cannot be in complete balance all the time. The scales lollies tip more on one side than the other. For example when I started one of my businesses, I was clocking in hundreds of hours on it at the sacrifice of family time and my own mental health. I didn’t realise the effect it had on my family until my husband told me. The trick is to be self aware of where you are on the scale. It’s important to be vigilant with your schedule and put in time for yourself, your family and relationships. When it’s in the calendar or booked on your phone you will commit to it. For me it’s easy to get caught up in my own adrenaline and to just go go go and then suddenly will lose track of time.


About the expert

Catherine Ngo is a writer and presenter. She spent the majority of her corporate HR career, rolling out change programs for top ASX listed companies such as Westpac and IAG.

Catherine writes on thought leadership, expert commentary on FairWork cases and analysis on the world of work. She’s passionate about ensuring a balanced representation at work and beyond.

She is also the Founder & CEO of Keynoteworthy, a platform connecting event organisers with diverse speakers. She started this after being fed up with the lack of balanced representation at events and conferences — and she wasn’t the only one who shared this sentiment.

Catherine believes we should all be the change we wish to see. To stay silent is to agree with the status quo. Change for the better happens when we take action. And Keynoteworthy is about taking action.

Outside of work, Catherine loves to do open-mics, stand-up comedy, collect indoor plants and think about her next project to change the world.