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

Increased efficiency is not the only solution to feeling overwhelmed. Remaining true to our resolutions also requires the audacity to say “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 Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (20)
  • Christine Louise Hohlbaum

    What a fabulous point of view! In my own work I claim we must befriend time to have more of (and from) it. I particularly appreciate your ruthlessly culling your strategies. Chances are if you have to debate about it, it’s not worthing doing. Amen! ~Christine Louise Hohlbaum, author of THE POWER OF SLOW: 101 WAYS TO SAVE TIME IN OUR 24/7 World

  • John McLachlan

    I’m a big fan of the “don’t do list” except I have to constantly remind myself of it.

    I think your point about saying no to “unexpected opportunities” is really important. They can be very seductive.

    Overall, it’s finding a balance, because you can also close yourself off if you go too far to the side of saying “no.”

  • Ken W

    The “stop doing” list idea is brilliant, I never thought of it in that way before. Thanks!

  • Mary Phillips

    This is exactly what I need. Thanks! I had already written FOCUS on the top of my to do list.

  • Bojana

    So true! This is exactly what I needed to hear i.e. read!
    I came to similar conclusions the hard way, therefore a reminder is always welcome…I’d say “focus” would be the key word here.

  • xposure

    Some really great advice from the other side of the coin. I was trying to think of what i wanted to achieve differently this year, but was struggling with where to find the time to do it. Reading this gave me one of those ‘Ahh! light bulb’ moments.


  • Ajani Truth

    Now this is a great post! Glad that it took another direction. What’s a resolution without clear focus.

  • Valp

    Brilliant, thanks! I wrote two key words for my freelance career in 2010: Organization and Fun. The first one seems to be equal to Focus.


  • Creative ideas

    Nice tips. Thanks for great reading!

  • monkey O

    wow~ lol

  • Mike

    Excellent advice! I think it all comes down to focus. Get your desires and goals clear then set an action plan and review at leats monthly. Lots of tools online you could use. I am now using:
    simple but effective, if you need more complex tools use:

  • Jeffrey Smith

    Very good advice, but did anyone consider that using a minstrel in blackface as an illustration might detract from it? My first thought was Al Jolson singing “Mammy.”

  • Ana Weid

    The tricky thing about picking only 2-3 goals is that they need constant reavaliation. I see how this applies to the professional life, but not as much for my personal. For instance, should I have goals per week? Like: picking up dry-cleaning, making a doctor’s appointment and do grossery shopping; then have other monthly-goals, such as visiting the parents, going to the gym 3 times a week, etc? This is the only way I can see that being done outside the office

  • jkglei

    The illustration isn’t intended to represent someone in blackface – it was done that way more for color contrast. I believe it’s actually based on an image of Fred Astaire! But thanks for the note. I’ll pass it on to the illustrator.

  • Aaron Aiken

    Firing up Penultimate to write out clearer business and personal goals that will become my main focus. Thanks for continually pushing.

  • paul

    i love saying no – it’s helped create so much focus for me. i blogged about it here:

  • Jay Gillespie

     I resolve to write, record and release a song complete with music video for every major holiday this year.

     -Jay Gillespie USL

  • Cobi

    I was led here by another article on how to stick to goals and now venture out to another article called “Jim Collin’s Best Stop Doing List” list. Boy O Boy if I don’t stick to my goals now….. I gotta get myself hung 😛

  • RJohnstonAZ

    When children are young, they are taught “Do not say NO to your elders” then, when men wish to have sex with women, they are usually older, so they have difficulty saying NO.. Practice with an older man you know, have him ask for various things. Say NO, each time. When you get so it seems funny or it becomes easy, it will be easier to say NO, when you need or want too say NO

  • Dbakeca Italia

    very true. awesome topic

  • Nathan Ryan Ergang

    Have you been dreaming up any New Year’s Resolutions this year? Do you usually follow through with them or do you start strong then give up halfway through? Would you like some extra help? This book will help you actually achieve your goals. Learn the power of goal setting so you can transform your life. Discover what’s holding you back and learn how to break through any obstacles that get in your way. You deserve to get what you want. Check out this book so you can reach your wildest dreams.

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