My friend had a dilemma last year. He had just gone back to school full-time to complete his degree. He also sang in a band, worked a part-time job on the weekends, and was helping to plan two weddings simultaneously for his brother and best friend. Did I mention he was training for a marathon as well?
“I have such trouble saying ‘no’ to things,” he told me over coffee. “Every opportunity might lead to something better. But I know I need to stay focused on what matters. How can I do this without sabotaging myself?”
I felt for him — because I used to be him. I spent my first few years out of graduate school trying to navigate the collapsed job market. I knew I had to hustle in order to make it. So, I started saying one word a lot: “yes.”
This is some merit to this strategy. Putting yourself out there and taking chances is how you move forward. I made a few strategic connections that each yielded several job offers. I was thankful for those connections — and the freelance work that came with them.
There is just one problem: saying “yes” to everything stops the good from becoming great.
Don’t believe me? Listen to a billionaire. Warren Buffet famously said, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” That is because very successful people know who they are, what they value, and how they contribute to the world. Anything else is a distraction.
This has created a paradox for my perspective on time. I now have more of it than I had before — and I guard it more fiercely now by saying “no” more often.
It is trendy right now to say “yes” to everything. But I’d like to give you a different challenge: make 2016 your year of “no.”
Here is how to focus on what you care about — and say “no” to everything else:
Identify what matters
We all have deep values that drive our lives. The problem is that our actions do not often align with what we value most — especially when we say “yes” to everything.
Start by choosing the three things you value most — loved ones, health and fitness, volunteering, etc. Then, align anything you say “yes” to with at least one of your values. Let’s say a good friend asks you to join her for spin class once a week after work this summer. This activity aligns with two of your values — a strong reason for you to say “yes.”
Linking your commitments to your inner values helps you think more deeply about what matters. As a result, you will spend your time more wisely by saying “no” to irrelevant requests.
Explain the “why”
Not many people know what they value; fewer people can explain why these values matter to them. So, the next time you say “no” to someone’s request, do not leave them hanging. Instead, share your three values — and why you cherish them.
This gives those around you a clearer picture of who you are. It also helps them understand why you choose to pursue certain initiatives while saying “no” to others. And who knows? They might even send you more relevant requests next time.
Own your calendar
Be honest: how often do you say “yes” out of perceived obligation? I know the pressure to please everyone. I also know that this is a surefire way to over-promise and under-deliver. So, the next time “yes” almost exits your mouth, take a moment to step back.
Instead, establish set times to complete distinct tasks — and do not let anything interfere. If you value volunteering, then schedule specific dates and times to do it on your calendar. Even better, share your calendar with colleagues. This shows them that you hold yourself accountable — a trait that any great team values.
Time is one resource you cannot replace. Whenever you say “yes” to one thing, you say “no” to something else.
We are not even two months into the new year. So, I challenge you to look at your calendar for 2016 and ask yourself if everything on it truly matters. If not, then now is the time to do a deep cleanse. You only get one life to live — and there is no guarantee how much time you’ll have.
If that sounds urgent, it’s because it is. Act like everything you do matters. It will help you get comfortable saying “no” this year.