One of the methods that have allowed me to accomplish all that I have done so far is my emphasis on focus. Given all the opportunities and temptations that crop up in a typical day, it would be easy to spend time and energy on so many different projects and interesting activities that without focus I would make far less progress toward the relatively few goals and priorities that are most important to me.
Fortunately, to help me maintain a steady focus I have cultivated a considerable amount of what I like to call “the power of no.”
Simply put, I am far quicker and better at saying “no” to opportunities and temptations than I am at saying “yes.”
I suppose this trait originally became apparent to me when it came time to buy my first car. There were a lot of good cars to choose from, but I wanted a convertible. Despite the possible alternatives, I found myself saying “no” to every car that wasn’t a convertible. I discovered I would rather have no car than a hardtop. Eventually, I got my convertible, and it helped me feel happy every time I drove it.
It turns out that this penchant for saying “no” is more than just a trick for avoiding what I don’t want. It’s also a powerful tool for focusing on what is most important and for keeping my time and energy reserved for activities and work that lead me in the directions I most want to go.
I have learned through experience that by saying “no” to the vast majority of opportunities and temptations I encounter, I automatically leave room for what’s more important.
This power of “no” greatly simplifies my life and work, and delivers good results in many different situations.
For example, when people ask me to give a presentation or attend a meeting planned for weeks or months in the future, my schedule for that date and time almost always appears to be clear. That would make it easy, and even tempting, to say “yes” to the offer.
But I have learned that my schedule fills up pretty regularly with work and activities I’m happy to pursue. So now when I encounter offers to do something far in the future I make a simple calculation: if that presentation or meeting were scheduled for today or tomorrow, rather than for sometime further out, and if I would feel it to be less important or less tempting that what I have already scheduled for today or tomorrow, I say “no.”
I can do this because I feel secure that when that date and time finally roll around, I will find myself heavily scheduled with work and activities that I will judge to be more in line with my goals and aspirations, and I will regret having agreed to this less important presentation or meeting.
In this way, the power of “no” saves me from making a great many commitments I will later regret.
Similarly, the power of “no” helps me filter out opportunities and temptations that don’t fall into the top tier of things I’d like to do. Basically, I try very hard to say “no” to pretty much every offer that comes my way. The idea is to say “no” unless I feel so excited or so strongly tempted by the opportunity that I just can’t bring myself to avoid it.
The practical result of my default response being “no” is that in most cases I say “yes” only to those opportunities and temptations that are most powerfully aligned with my desires, goals, and plans. The power of “no” is one of the big reasons my days tend to be filled not with run of the mill activities, but with opportunities and activities that I enjoy on many levels.
Saying “no” more often than saying “yes” also simplifies my life in several ways:
First, it’s now a habit to say “no,” so I can do it most of the time without having to think very much.
Second, by saying “no” unless I’m deeply excited and tempted by the opportunity, I eliminate lots of complications that would be involved in juggling the personal and practical conflicts usually associated with the kind of commitments that don’t really excite me.
For example, I don’t have to go to meetings or make presentations that I’d really rather avoid. I don’t have to disappoint people by making last minute cancellations because something more exciting has come up. And I don’t have to spend time with people I don’t enjoy simply because I foolishly filled my schedule with second-tier activities.
Third, by focusing on those few priorities and goals I really care about, my choices of “what to do next” are easier to make. There are only a relatively few items on my plate at any one time, all of them mostly important to me. So boring, irrelevant, and unfulfilling commitments are far less of a distraction and a drain on my time than they otherwise would be.
I’m not sure why I started using the power of “no” to keep my powder dry and focus on what I really care about, but over the years I’ve come to recognize I’m not the only one to think this way, and to appreciate this practice as one of my strengths. I’ve helped others to develop this strength, as well, and no one who has ever learned it from me has ever come to regret using the power of “no” to improve their use of time and energy.
Separately, I’m reminding you that I’m re-issuing my classic book on productivity and effectiveness: “How to Organize Your Work and Your Life,” totally updated, revised, and expanded for the 21st Century. Please visit my website for that book to follow what I’m working on over there, and to see if any of that material can benefit you.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and feelings about all this in the comments below.