A New Kind of New Year’s Resolution: Saying No

If you’re anything like me, your list of New Year’s resolutions reads like a sort of global to-do list. We resolve to change our diets, exercise more, travel to new places, finish a big creative project. We resolve to be better by doing more.

Yet, focusing our energies – and goals – on what we should NOT be doing in the coming year can have just as positive an effect on our productivity, not to mention well-being. As bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld has noted, “Politely saying no can free up astonishing amounts of time.”

If you are feeling overwhelmed, information overloaded, or just plain off-track, I would implore you to be more disciplined about what you are taking on in 2010, and why. Increased efficiency is not the only solution to feeling overwhelmed. Saying no – and closely guarding your focus – must also be part of the productivity equation.Acclaimed business writer Jim Collins (Built to Last, Good to Great) writes eloquently about his discovery of what he calls the “Stop-Doing” list in his 20s when a professor gave him the “20-10 assignment”:

“Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?

That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the “stop doing” list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions — a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.”

It wasn’t that Collins was not working hard, or toward clearly defined objectives. As he says, “I was the type of person who carefully laid out my BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals), top three objectives, and priority activities at the start of each New Year.” But without understanding the importance of saying no, Collins was – as his professor put it – leading a busy life rather than a disciplined life.

Saying no – and closely guarding your focus – must also be part of the productivity equation.

Here are a few best practices for deciding when to SAY NO, so that you can keep your energy focused on the objectives that really push your creative endeavors forward:

1. Distill the key objectives for your creative project or business down to just a few items.

You can’t very well decide what NOT to do if you aren’t crystal clear on what you want to achieve. What are you trying to accomplish in the short-term (this week, this month)? What are you trying to accomplish in the long-term (this year, the next 5 years)? These goals shouldn’t be a laundry list of 10 or 20 things. Instead, they should be limited and achievable – perhaps just 2-3 items. If you’re about to agree to do something that doesn’t push you toward any of these goals, consider saying, “No.”

2. Kill ideas with gusto.

Though they charm us with their novelty, new ideas are actually the arch-enemy of project completion. Whether they expand the scope of an existing project or pull our attention away to an entirely new project, new ideas regularly steer us off-course. Consider filing away that new idea in a “backburner” document – a running list of ideas you want to come back to – until you have some energy freed up. If it still seems earth-shatteringly brilliant when you revisit it, then it’s probably worth doing. If it doesn’t, good thing you didn’t waste your time.

3. Ruthlessly prune your action steps.

Often we add seemingly crucial action steps to our to-do lists, only to find – a week later – that they’re still languishing, un-done. One best practice is to review your action steps weekly – if not daily – and ruthlessly prune away the items that seem unnecessary (or ineffectual) after further thought. If you can even debate whether it’s worth doing or not, your energy would probably be better spent elsewhere.

4. Be willing to reject unexpected “opportunities.”

Whether it’s a new client dangling a fat paycheck or a needy friend who requires your creative expertise, opportunities will inevitably arise that we struggle with rejecting for financial or emotional reasons. We think that it would seem impolite or selfish, that the extra money would be nice, that the client might not come back. But consider this: If you don’t have the bandwidth to execute a project to the best of your abilities, you’re better off saying no. You don’t get overwhelmed, the client doesn’t get disappointed, and your professional standing remains good.

More than just discipline, saying no requires faith in the value of your goals. If you remain focused and cultivate your chosen expertise, you will eventually become a magnet for the right projects and people. Then, all those missed “opportunities” – which would have distracted you and depleted your energy – won’t really seem to matter anymore.

More insights on: Perseverance, Task Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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