Say no to the wrong things so you can say yes to the right things
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Several years ago, I made a mistake.
I declined an early-morning meeting, and the person scheduling it asked me why I couldn’t make it. I shared the details of my existing commitment with him. He said, “Oh! Well, this meeting is much more important than that. Cancel your other commitment.”
I will never let that happen again. How I choose to prioritize my time is my decision. Only I understand the reasoning and the tradeoffs I want to make.
After that day, I forever changed how I manage my time and communicate with people who want a slice of it. I know that my time is a finite precious resource, and I’ll never have enough of it to do the things that matter most unless I fiercely protect it.
Does anyone ever feel like that they just have extra time lying around? I doubt it. Pretty much every person I know says there aren’t enough hours in the day.
How about you? Does any of this ring true?
I feel like I can never catch up at work.
41% of people spend time on tasks they don’t enjoy that don’t really get work done.
I will never complete my growing to-do list.
Only 2.5% of people can multitask effectively (i.e., they’re supertaskers).
I’m so tired! I never get enough sleep.
Over a third of U.S. adults don’t get enough sleep.
I’d like to spend more time with my family and friends, but I have too much to do.
56% of employed parents say it’s difficult to balance the responsibilities of job and family.
I’d like to exercise and eat healthier, but I’m too busy.
67% of Americans say they don’t have time to exercise as much as they’d like.
I want to take more time off to enjoy life, but I can’t.
60% of U.S. adults say they sometimes feel too busy to enjoy life.
Saying Yes can be a problem
There are only 24 hours in a day. You cannot create more time.
You can’t keep robbing yourself of sleep, either. That’s not sustainable or healthy.
You can try to work faster and be more efficient. There are tons of books on productivity tricks and hacks. But that will only help a little.
The real solution is to do less. You have to say no to things that eat up your time to make room for more important things.
I know this isn’t a revolutionary concept. You know that you should be saying “No” more often.
However, if you’re like most of us, that’s easier said than done. You’re thinking it, but you’re not really doing it.
Why? Well, we often bite our tongues and say “Yes” because:
We want to be kind and helpful.
We don’t want to appear selfish or rude.
We’re afraid to upset our bosses.
We don’t like conflict.
We don’t want to disappoint others.
We hope that saying “Yes” now will benefit us later.
In some cases, there are valid reasons to take on more work, tasks, and activities even when we wish we could decline. There are times that doing more is necessary to push through and get things done, get ahead at work, or take care of your loved ones.
However, your time isn’t infinite, and you still need to consider what you’re taking on and who you’re helping. You have to ruthlessly prioritize and rank the demands.
Also, I would bet you’re still saying “Yes” to requests that aren’t worth it. There are dozens of things that you should start declining to reinvest your time in better ways.
I’m just as guilty as most people. I like to help others. I don’t enjoy conflict. I feel guilty about saying “No” when someone wants a little of my time.
But I’ve lived long enough to see how it all plays out, over and over again. I’ve experienced how prioritizing the needs of others leaves less time for my loved ones and me.
I’ve also learned that it’s a bottomless pit. You could spend every minute of every day giving away your time, and it would never be enough.
Keep doing that, and you’ll burn out. You must take care of yourself too!
Have you heard that cheesy metaphor of putting on your oxygen mask first before helping others? It’s a little goofy, but it’s true.
You can’t help other people if you let yourself crash and burn. So, below is my list of things you should stop doing to reinvest that time in yourself and more important activities.
Say No to These 20 Things
The hard part is saying “No” and sticking to that decision. But, it’s even harder to do that and not feel guilty about it.
However, let me tell you something. The most successful people in the world say “No” to hundreds or even thousands of requests every week. It doesn’t hurt them. In fact, it’s one of the primary reasons that they are successful.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
— Warren Buffett
1. Accepting pointless meetings
I worked in Tech for decades, and one of the most common complaints is that there are way too many meetings. As an exec, I used to spend my entire day in conference rooms. As an individual contributor, it’s hard to get your work done if you spend your whole day on Zoom. It’s ok to decline meetings when you know that your presence isn’t essential.
2. Traditional networking events
As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve never enjoyed — or gotten much value out of — traditional networking events. They are a considerable time-waster since you could easily spend several hours at one and walk away with nothing. There are smarter ways to build a powerful network.
3. Unnecessary business trips
Travel can certainly be enjoyable. I cherish many of the business trips I’ve taken around the world. But, too much travel can be grueling and a waste of time. I remember a few trips that didn’t accomplish much beyond what could have been handled with a few conference calls or Zoom meetings. Learn how to say “No” to unnecessary and unpleasant travel.
4. Excessive social events
As an introvert, it doesn’t take much for me to exceed my limit of social events. But, even if you’re extroverted and enjoy them, there can be too much of a good thing, and it will quickly eat up your time. Say “No” when you know that you could spend that time doing something more important.
5. Long parties
This is the time of year for holiday lunches, dinners, and parties. Yes, you sometimes need to make an appearance (e.g., at your company’s holiday party). But, you don’t have to stay until the bitter end. Plan your party strategy for attending for a little while, talking with the right people (e.g., your boss), and making a gracious exit.
6. Endless school functions
What’s up with all of the school activities and events? I can tell you that my parents didn’t spend a fraction of the time at my school that parents are expected to spend today. Yes, you absolutely should attend your children’s games, plays, etc. But, I know there are other events that they would be happy to skip — and you should too.
7. Making time for a quick chat
It seems like everyone on LinkedIn just wants a “quick chat” lately. Someone connects with me, sends an introductory message, and then drops the “Hey, I would love to hop on a quick call with you to talk more about what I do.” I used to make time for a few of these. I also used to be super polite with the banter back and forth about how I didn’t need whatever they were selling. Now, I make it clear that I have no time for it and occasionally block people. My time is too valuable.
8. Letting people “pick your brain”
I wouldn’t be a business advisor and leadership coach if I didn’t like helping people. I spent many years giving people advice, meeting for lunch to help someone with a tough decision, and saying yes to requests to “pick my brain.” But, it became too much and left me very little time for my own work. Put a limit on how often you let people pick your brain, and seriously consider setting up paid calls to access your precious time and wisdom.
9. Getting pulled into drama
I used to get pulled into so much drama when I worked in an office. It happens less often now that I primarily work at home, but you’d be surprised. Virtual drama over messaging and Zoom is still a significant time sink. It’s good to help people and support them, but there’s a line beyond which you end up wasting too much time listening to someone mope, moan, and complain without them taking action to solve anything.
10. Keeping up appearances
When you catch yourself saying, “I have to do this because everyone else does,” take a hard look at why you feel that way. All too often, we waste time on activities because we want to be perceived a certain way by friends and neighbors.
11. Tasks you should delegate
I would bet there are several tasks you’re still doing every week that could easily be handled by someone else. I’m a bit of a control freak, so I get it. One of my challenges as a leader was letting go of work that I knew I should delegate to my team. But, once you finally do, you’ll be amazed at how much time you recover.
12. Being guilted into events
We’re sometimes guilted into events by our family (e.g., a family reunion), but it can occur with friends too. You should only attend events when you really want to vs. when you feel forced to do so. Don’t let guilt steal precious time from your life.
13. Saying “Yes” out of fear
How often do you say “Yes” to a request from your boss because you’re afraid of potential negative repercussions if you say “No”? I know that I’ve done that. It can be a fear of being fired, not getting promoted later, or your manager’s disappointment. But, that’s no way to live. If you’re overloaded and overworked because of fear, you have to overcome that to manage your time. Or, it might be time for a change (e.g., find a better job where you don’t have to live in fear).
14. Working for exposure
The game of “working for exposure” is one that consultants, designers, and writers will often be asked to play. Someone is too cheap to pay you what you’re worth, so they promise that the exposure will be fantastic. It never is. Say “No” to this trap.
15. Busy work
Some work will help you grow and advance, but some projects are below your skill level and simply keep you busy. Busy work is a waste of time. It won’t help you shine and get promoted. Have a strategy for taking on work that matters and alternative solutions for low-ROI projects and tasks (e.g., delegating to a more junior colleague).
16. Volunteering too much
Some people want to be good citizens and raise their hands to volunteer way too much at work (e.g., planning parties, scheduling events, designing a team t-shirt). Yes, it’s good to step up occasionally and help with tasks that fall outside your job description. But, do it too often, and you’ll find yourself drowning and falling behind in your expected work.
17. Responding immediately
Communication via email, texting, and online messaging has exploded over the past decades. There’s an “always-on” expectation, and it’s easier than ever for people to reach you 24×7 and fragment your attention. Resist the urge to respond immediately to every single message. Instead, batch the activity and reply when you want to dedicate time to it.
18. Excessive multitasking
I know that the modern job requires quite a bit of multitasking. But, we often take it to extremes. We feel like we can do it all and still be effective. The truth is, we cannot (remember the stat that only 2.5% of people are supertaskers?). If you want to reduce your stress, feel less tired, and get more quality work done, focus on one or a few things at a time.
19. Commuting for a job
This may no longer be an issue for you if you’re working from home forever or have a short commute. But, I used to spend over 625 hours a year on the freeway before I finally left my corporate job behind. The world has changed significantly in the past two years. If you’re tired of wasting time on your daily commute to the office, there are better options now.
20. Apologizing for saying no
Finally, you need to say “No” to apologizing for saying No. It’s human nature, I guess. I still catch myself doing it. “Sorry, I don’t have the time to do that.” But, you don’t need to be sorry for making yourself a priority. You don’t need to apologize for treating your time like the precious resource that it is.
How to say No
How you say “No” to a request for your time depends on the request and who the requestor is. It’s easier to decline a meeting request from a stranger on LinkedIn than tell your boss that you don’t want to take on a new project.
You will need to be more thoughtful about your response to your manager, which may require a deeper explanation and offering alternatives. But, saying “No” falls into these major categories.
I don’t do that
In some cases, a request will be at odds with your values, beliefs, and priorities. You could potentially fulfill the request, but you don’t want to. Not now and not ever.
“No, thank you. I don’t do that kind of work.”
“No, thank you. I’m no longer accepting this type of meeting.”
You can decide if you want to explain why or leave it at that.
I can’t do that
In other cases, you can’t fulfill the request because it is beyond your capabilities, not within your power, or otherwise impossible. It’s not a choice of doing it or not, you simply cannot, and it will be a waste of your time to try.
“No, I’m not the right person for that task.”
“No, I don’t have the power to make that decision. You’ll need to talk with Susan.”
“No, I can’t attend that meeting in person since it would be a 4-hour drive.”
I have other commitments
There will be times when you decide to prioritize existing commitments over something new that demands more of your time. You can’t keep putting new things on your plate.
“No, my time is already fully allocated to other priorities, and I can’t take on any additional work.”
“No, I already have a commitment at that time… What is it? It’s personal.”
“No, my schedule is full, and I’m not accepting any new meetings.”
Not now, but later
Finally, there will be times that you would like to accept a request but simply don’t have the time right now. In those cases, you can negotiate.
“I’d be happy to accept this project, but it will have to wait until next Friday when I finish my commitment to this current project.”
“My schedule is full this week, but I’d be happy to talk with you next Wed.”
I think you get the idea. The big takeaway is that you should be the one owning your time and deciding how you allocate it. You get to prioritize your activities and how you schedule things.
Take control, stop saying “Yes” to everything, say “No” when necessary, and negotiate when appropriate. When you eliminate the wrong things, it makes more time for the right things.
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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for ambitious professionals with weekly challenges, office hours, and 24×7 support. If you’re interested in starting your own business someday (or accelerating an existing one), check out his “Employee to Solopreneur” course (launching in 2022).
Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.