I was born on the 21st of May. According to my numerology chart, it means that “you are interested in so many things that you must be careful, or you will scatter your endeavours too much. You must learn to concentrate as you find it difficult to finish what you start.”
Scattered endeavours have been the story of my life. How else would you explain a person who’s been a 3D animator, trained in ninjutsu, meditated in Buddhist temples, is a travel photographer and a tech journalist?
While I loved exploring variety in my youth; one thing has become clearer as I get older: My interests far outpace the time I have to indulge them. If I don’t learn to say “no” and focus, I will flame out chasing every new fascination, leaving behind a trail of unfinished ambitions.
That’s why one of my goals for 2016 has been to learn how to say “no.” Three things have stood out to me after 11 months of this practice:
- I can do less than I think
- It’s not “no” if it doesn’t hurt
- Saying “no” is just the beginning
I Can Do Less Than I Think
Every Monday, I lay out my top three goals of the week. On average, I can complete two of them by the week’s end. One way to think about this low score is that I need to become more efficient, but I know from years of tracking my tasks that I’m already pretty productive.
My key takeaway, instead, is to accept the fact that I can usually accomplish less than I think I can, which underscores the importance of saying “no” to unimportant tasks.
The more you try to do, the less you actually accomplish. McChesney, Covey, The 4 Disciplines of Execution
It’s Not “No” If It Doesn’t Hurt
It’s easy to say “no” to things that are frivolous. You’ll know it’s a true “no” when it hurts to say it. That’s why “the good is the enemy of the great,” and not “the awful is the enemy of the great.”
But masochistic self-denial is not the point of saying “no.”
What focus means is saying no to something that with every bone in your body think is a phenomenal idea, and you wake up thinking about it, but you end up saying no to it because you’re focusing on something else. Jonathan Ive
Saying “No” Is Just the Beginning
The point of saying “no” is so you can say “yes” to the things that matter more. While it hurts to say “no” to the good, the benefits of saying “yes” to the great should outweigh the hurt, otherwise, it’s time to review your priorities.
When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!” Derek Sivers
How to Say “No” to the Less Important
Saying “no” hurts. It hurts to reject, to push away, to close a door. But it’s the only sane conclusion to the fact that there will always be more I want to do in one life than I will ever have time for.
But it’s done in the service of saying “yes” to better things, things that bring more joy, fulfilment and sanity than what I’m refusing. Here are some key strategies that I’ve found useful in learning to say “no.”
- Accept that there will always be more to do than time to do it. Accepting your limitations is, paradoxically, the first step towards effectiveness and efficiency. If you don’t, you’ll be running around an endless track while the time of your life runs out.
- Know what’s important to you. This comes with reflection. I know, for example, that family is important to me, so I’m willing to sacrifice catching the latest movie for catching up with them.
- Set top three yearly, monthly and weekly goals. Think about your top three goals for the year, which will inform your monthly and weekly goals. Restricting yourself to just three will help you narrow down on what really matters to you. Write them down somewhere you will see often.
- Review your week and month regularly. This is how you’ll know if you’re actually moving forward on your most important goals. Here’s how to schedule regular reality checks.
- Review your 80/20. This is something productivity maven Tim Ferriss recommends in his book The 4-Hour Workweek. Identify the 20% of your activities that get 80% of the results and focus on those. Conversely, diagnose the 20% of your life that causes 80% of your misery, and get rid of them. Treat the numbers as an estimation, and the exercise as a thought experiment — you might get interesting insights.
Focusing is a Balancing Act
Knowing when and what to say “no” to is often a balancing act. Life flows and ebbs, and you have to adjust along with it, which is why the weekly and monthly reviews help to keep you honest.
It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. Bruce Lee
While a year spent practicing “no” has helped me to become better at letting go of good goals in service of accomplishing better goals, it has really forced me to ask hard questions more than anything else — is this a better use of my time, or is that? I’m swamped and can’t complete everything, what do I have to give up to complete my top goals?
One of these questions has to do with Starting Mind. I enjoy writing here but there’s something else on the horizon that might become a more effective use of my time, and I can’t possibly do both of them at the same time … which means it’s time to say “no” to something.
(It’s still early; but what’s next has something to do with how to become your best creative self through writing.)
That’s why I’ll be hitting ‘pause’ on Starting Mind for the time being as I sort out my thoughts and plan out the year ahead. Join my free mailing list below if you want to stay tuned on what comes up next.