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Our productive time is capped, so let’s get better at saying “No” more often

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Matthew Paulson is a serial entrepreneur located in Sioux Falls, S.D. His company, American Consumer News, publishes a daily investment newsletter to more than 104,000 subscribers. He regularly blogs about entrepreneurship online at his website, www.mattpaulson.com.

During the last few years, I’ve built up a wide network of loose business connections in Sioux Falls and around the world by attending events, buying people lunch, simply being engaged in business and being an active member in the community. Because I’m a person that’s more “out there” than most, there’s not a week that goes by where I don’t get pitched on something. Typically a well-intentioned individual will want me to set up some sort of business partnership with them or want me to help out with or give money to their nonprofit organization or want me to coach them in business. These requests range from simple “Can I pick your brain?” requests all the way up to, “Hey, we should start a business together.”

What happens when you say “Yes” too often

For a while, I tried to accommodate all of the requests that I could reasonably accommodate because I wanted to help people out and I wanted other people to like me. I ended up having a lot of “irons in the fire” and I wasn’t all that excited about many of them. I had gotten myself into a couple of business relationships I wasn’t all that excited about and was giving money to a couple of nonprofit organizations that I wasn’t really emotionally invested in. I simply tried to do too many things at once. I thought I was helping people by saying “Yes” to everybody, but I was really doing them a disservice because I wasn’t doing anything well. I was doing a lot of things poorly. I had no margin in my life and areas of my life that should be important were taking a backseat to less important things.

Identify and focus on critically important areas of life

Eventually, I figured out that I have a limited amount of time, energy and money and need to allocate those resources very intentionally. A lot of people will say that time is the most limited resource that you have, because you only get 168 hours each week. The reality is that it’s even more precious than that. How many productive mental hours do you have in a day, really? If you’re lucky, you have 30-35 good hours of productive mental energy in the week. After a certain point in the day, you might still be at work, but your brain isn’t in a place where you can actually get anything meaningful done.

I know that I have the time, energy and financial resources to do a handful of things very well and need to say “no” to everything that doesn’t fit within the narrow band of things that I consider very important.

These are the only things that I say “Yes” to consistently:

  • Maintaining my mind, body and soul (lifelong learning, physical exercise, personal faith and prayer.)
  • Spending time with my wife and son.
  • Building technology-driven systems-based businesses with trusted business partners
  • Maintaining healthy relationships with friends and acquaintances
  • Supporting Christian ministries (that I’m passionate about) with my time and money.

If something doesn’t fall into one of those four categories, the overwhelming likelihood is that I’ll say no. If I want to make those five areas of my life a priority and do them well, I have to intentionally say “No” to everything else. I suggest that you identify the four or five areas of your life that are especially important to you and focus on them. Use those areas of critical importance as a filter. If something doesn’t fall into one of those areas, don’t commit to it.

Reasons to say “No”

If you aren’t sure whether or not you should say “Yes” or “No” to something, here are a few good questions you should ask yourself:

  • How excited am I about this opportunity? You should only say “Yes” to things that you are excited about and can’t help but say “Yes” to. If you’re not sure absolutely sure you want to do something, let the answer be “No.”
  • Do I trust the person making the request? This is especially important when considering business partnerships and requests for charitable donations. I will automatically say “No” to most business partnerships unless I have a pre-existing relationship with the person making the request.
  • Do I know what I’m signing up for? If I say “Yes”, how much time will be required of me? What kind of work will I be singing up for? How long am I committing my time for? I won’t say “Yes” to something until I know precisely what the commitment will be.
  • Does this further an area of critical importance in my life? Does saying “Yes” to this further any of the areas of critical importance I’ve identified? If it doesn’t, you probably shouldn’t say “Yes.”
  • Is this the best opportunity I have available? Because you only have so much useful mental energy in a day, you should only do the things that will have the greatest impact on your areas of critical importance.
  • Would I be saying “Yes” just to make the person that asked happy? Don’t spend your life being a people pleaser. You’ll just end up miserable.

Do more by doing less

The true key to productivity, work-life balance and dare I say, happiness, is to identify the few areas of life that are especially important to you and giving a resounding “No” to everything else.

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  • I couldn’t have said it better, Matthew. Well written.

    I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and researching this very topic myself. Many moons ago, I started to think about each day in the form of a 24 hour pie chart. There will never be (on Earth, at least) more than 24 hours in a day. So how do we choose to slice up the 24 hour pie? There are things you “must do” (eat, sleep, work, etc) and things you “can do” (check Facebook, watch TV, play games, spend time with family, workout, etc).

    Life continually gets busier and busier, with the “must do” pieces of the pie shrinking (less sleep, poor eating habits, etc) while we try to cram more and more into the remaining “can do” portion of the pie. To make a slice worthwhile, it should have significant size, otherwise is it really worth doing? After all, what good is a mini sliver of pumpkin pie at the Thanksgiving table? Doesn’t get the job done. 🙂

    Saying no more often means less slivers and more hearty pie slices which, if chosen wisely, will lead to a more fulfilled life.

  • britt

    Great article! Sounds right in line with some of the lessons of “Essentialism”! “If it’s not a ‘hell yes’, it’s a no!”

    http://www.amazon.com/Essentialism-Disciplined-Pursuit-Greg-McKeown/dp/0804137382/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1416939942&sr=8-1&keywords=essentialism