We often hear about the value of saying “no.” It’s a popular productivity hack; learning to say no is one of the best ways to make time for your priorities.
But here’s something productivity mavens often fail to emphasize: for this to work, you have to say “no” to things you actually WANT to do. (Click to tweet this idea.)
This sounds simple, but it hit me as a sort of epiphany in the first quarter of this year. I’ve never been particularly good at passing on opportunities, and like many entrepreneurs, I suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome, feeling the urge to execute far more ideas than I have time for.
This is precisely why I have several big things going on at once: the client arm of my business, the product side, The Write Life, and other projects that have fallen to the back burner like my travel memoir. One of the perks of working for yourself is you can choose how you spend your time (so long as you’re making money), and I enjoy having my hands in several buckets. This variety allows me to experiment and learn, which keeps me loving this job I’ve created.
But I’m also keenly aware — more so as each day goes by — that working on several projects at once means I’m not reaching my full potential for any of them. We all have limited time and energy, and each time I turn my focus from one component of the business to another, it means leaving another piece behind. It doesn’t mean neglecting parts of the business, it simply means not growing them.
In March, for example, I focused much of my own personal energy and the energy of my team on The Writer’s Bundle, a product sold through The Write Life. It was a three-day sale, but it took many more days to get it off the ground smoothly. Once we’d wrapped it up, I shifted my focus to client work, onboarding a new client and strategizing a content shift for another. Next, I’m planning to work on a new ebook for AlexisGrant.com, a guide to the financial side of running your own business, co-authored with my accountant dad. This guide has been in the works for more than a year, but I haven’t finished it because… you guessed it, I’ve had too many other things on my plate.
If I were really smart, I would choose one of these projects and direct all my energy there. I would grow the client business into a sellable company or focus only on creating high-margin digital products. In the long run, that would likely both increase my income and decrease my stress. And I probably will make that choice in the next few years.
For now though, I enjoy the variety and the challenge, and I’m not willing to give up any of this work-that-doesn’t-feel-like-work. That’s why I’ve started saying “no” to most other things.
But while busy often means stress, I remind myself regularly that being busy is a choice. (Click to tweet this.) I’m choosing to work on all these projects, and I’m choosing to organize a wedding and a move and several other personal milestones this year. While you can’t control everything that comes your way, most of our obligations are actually choices.
So over the last month or two, I’ve started saying “no” to opportunities that don’t fall into my main buckets. I used to think “saying no” meant passing on projects that weren’t quite right or didn’t help me reach my goals. That’s true, but for many of us, it also means saying “no” to opportunities that are a perfect fit. It means turning down things we actually want to do. It means giving something up.
This isn’t easy. It can result in disappointing professional contacts or readers or friends who you truly want to help. It can mean declining to work with an appealing client. It requires passing on interview opportunities, coffee with interesting people, and other networking and brand-building activities that do help you reach your long-term goals.
This is when “saying no” truly becomes meaningful: when you turn down opportunities you want. Re-reading this post, I’m realizing that if I were serious about implementing my own advice, I’d consolidate my own projects now rather than later. But for the moment, the next best thing is to push myself to apply this to all the extraneous tasks that come my way, usually via my flooded email inbox. All of the requests and inquiries and ideas that hit me on a daily basis are great opportunities, but I simply can’t do everything, no matter how much I want to.
Joanna Penn wrote a great post recently about refocusing her workload, and that’s what I consider this to be, too. A renewed commitment to my priorities, and permission to ignore everything else. That might sound harsh, but in our way-too-busy-and-connected world, it’s also necessary, and perhaps the only way to slow down and enjoy this life that’s in front of us.
If you feel busy and overwhelmed, I’d love to hear in the comments how you deal with it. Do you push yourself to say “no” to opportunities?