We’ve all heard the advice: if you want to be more productive, cut out the TV and Facebook binges, and you can miraculously have five to 10 hours of your life back each week.
That is a preposterous suggestion for hard-charging professionals.
We’ve already eliminated the fat from our schedules. We listen to audiobooks while washing the dishes, answer emails while standing in line at the grocery store, and return voicemails while driving home from work. There are no more efficiencies left to wring from the edges of our days.
So if we truly want to level up our productivity, there’s only one solution — and it’s painful. We have to learn how to say no to good things.
Saying no to a hopeful and expectant person can be challenging. But it’s a lot easier when the offer is unappealing: an unpaid speech in Buffalo in February, or yet another latte in exchange for an hourlong “brain picking.” It’s extraordinarily painful to say no to wonderful opportunities that you would very much like to do…except for the fact that they’re not the priorities you intentionally set.
I recently had to write an email that made me flinch. I turned down a speaking engagement on Grand Cayman that was offered to me by a longtime friend. In the past, there’s no question I would have jumped on it. “Caribbean + money + friend” would have proven irresistible. But I said no, and I’m glad I did, because it gave me more time to pursue the meaningful, long-term goals I set for myself.
That might be an extreme example, but I suspect you are also probably faced with a steady stream of good opportunities and you just don’t have time to say yes to all of them, or maybe even most of them. Here’s how you can find the strength to say no, and the questions you can ask yourself to stay focused.
What are your top professional priorities? It’s exciting to jump on new opportunities that present themselves, but not if they’re at the expense of the plan you’ve carefully laid out. What are your top two or three goals this year? For me, it’s researching and writing a new book, launching an online course, and earning money through speaking and consulting. (The island adventure would have paid far less than my usual rate — so while it would have been fun, it would have cut into the time I’d set aside for my first two goals.)
What is the total commitment? It’s easy to focus on the “shiny” part of the offer, even if that’s only the ego-boosting effects of being invited to do something. But find out what’s really involved. In addition to the commitment itself, is there planning or prep work to do? What’s the travel time? Will there be follow-up calls? Thinking this through will make the ROI (or lack thereof) clearer. Make sure you’re taking all aspects of the opportunity into account before you say yes. Agreeing to present on a webinar, for instance, might sound like a one-hour commitment. But actually it often means preparing slides, editing them based on feedback, holding prep calls with stakeholders, and doing a technical run-through several days before, amounting to several additional hours of “hidden” work.
What is the opportunity cost? One of my coaching clients told me recently about the acute pain he felt when he agreed to do a pro bono talk because he had nothing on the calendar, only to receive a paid speaking invitation for the same date that he now had to decline. It’s important to remember that by saying no you’re leaving yourself open to other possibilities that might offer higher pay, provide equal or more interesting connections, or be more in line with your goals this year. Even if nothing else comes along, you’ll have protected the time you need to work on your key priorities.
What is the physical/emotional cost? Finally, money and alignment with professional goals aren’t the only reasons to say no to an otherwise good opportunity. It’s also important to safeguard your health — something it’s easy to overlook. In 2015, I gave 74 talks on four continents. After being felled by a particularly vicious flu on the way back from an international engagement, I vowed to be clearer and more selective in the choices I made. If the talk didn’t meet my strategic objectives or my price point, I would need to decline. It was the only way, I realized, that I could keep myself in good shape for the right invitations.
Intellectually, we all understand the importance of focus. We know we can’t hope to make progress on our most meaningful long-term goals if we don’t carve out specific development time. And yet saying no to good opportunities feels terrible. Most people, in fact, can’t bear to do it, so they overcommit, run themselves ragged, and feel resentful in the end. And most of us succeed earlier in our careers by saying yes to almost everything. But there is strength in learning to say no. It’s the only way to reach the level of focus and productivity that allows you to become great.
Source: Harvard Business Review
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