Sounds simple enough, right? However, I believe we can all relate to the feeling of our time not being our own. We get stuck in the familiar (and sometimes comforting) trap of being busy. In fact, we have a business culture where we like to brag about how “busy” we are. We like to confuse movement with progress.
I’ve found that one of the more common pitfalls of new leaders is their uncanny ability to say “yes” to everything. They then proceed to contribute the minimum and mismanage their time. Best case, they plateau as they attempt to keep all of their plates spinning.
Bob Iger of Disney used a lesson he leared from his mentor Dan Burke to help him protect and manage his time and effort: "Avoid getting into the business of manufacturing trombone oil. You may become the greatest trombone-oil manufacturer in the world, but in the end, the world only consumers a few quarts of trombone oil a year."
Your time is finite. How often are you caught in the business of “manufacturing trombone oil”?
How do you break this cycle?
When you start saying yes and committing, it's difficult to stop. You want to be supportive. You want to believe you can take on the world.
However, a couple of fairly intelligent and successful people have a common take, shared with Mr. Iger: Just start saying “NO”.
"The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything." - Warren Buffett
“The hardest thing when you think about focusing. You think focusing is about saying "Yes." No. Focusing is about saying "No." And when you say "No," you piss off people.” -Steve Jobs
One of my favorite clips out there is an interview where Mr. Buffett and Bill Gates brag about how empty their planners are. I’m not saying it’s an exercise to try out at your next team meeting, but you should be proud of any time you have blocked for yourself.
Saying no also gives you time to be bored and solve problems. If you’re always going, when can you step back and ask questions? When can you innovate?
We have a finite amount of time and energy! Be selfish with it. Think about the ROI of your decisions. What use of your time benefits your team the most?
Why don’t we say “no”?
We’re afraid of the appearance of not being a team player. Nobody wants to be “that person” on the team. We at least want to say the right thing and be supportive. However, when you say “yes”, and don’t follow through or contribute to your fullest capabilities, who are you really helping?
Be open with your team. There is a lot of trust necessary for this type of candor to exist where saying “no” isn’t too awkward. People will always get frustrated, but that will be outweighed by how much more productive and effective you will be because you said “no”.
Of course, there is also balance involved. To paraphrase Adam Grant, other people’s priorities don’t need to be your priorities, but other people should be a priority.
Where to start…
- Look at your daily process and tasks with fresh eyes. If something doesn’t get done, what impact will it really have? If you stop doing it, will anyone notice? Give more of your attention to things that will make a difference!
- Say “no” to the repetitive tasks that you do everyday that add no value and don’t serve to support your growth. For tasks that you’ve mastered, teach someone else and pass it on! These tasks don’t define you, let go of them! Unless you grow your team, you will never grow.
- Take ownership of your time. Don’t sign up for things you cannot contribute to. Don’t drown yourself in tasks that don’t grow you or add value. Protect your time, it’s the most valuable resource you have.
Just saying "no" to your teammates and leaders may not always feel tactful. We're wired to want to help each other, that's what teams do. There are grey areas in every ask of your time, and navigating these politely is still important for your relationship with the team. One day you will ask for help and hope that your priorities become a priority for someone else.
A good place to start assessing your answer is to ask yourself two questions: If I say no, will they be okay? If I tell them yes, even though I believe I should say no will I be okay?
Based on those answers you can politely decline or decide to help on your terms. Here are a few tips to help you navigate these sensitive waters:
- If you truly feel you can contribute in a meaningful way and want to say “yes” it’s ok to request to do so on your terms. “I can do this, but in order for me to be effective with this and what I’m focused on, I need to request we meet (insert day/time here). This ensures your nor allowing a NEW request (novelty) to take priority over your current focus.
- To avoid the awkward feeling of telling someone “no” and seeming like you aren’t a team player or don’t want to help them: “I would love to help you, but I’m very focused on (X, Y & Z) so if you don’t mind, I’m going to pass on this project unless you really think me being part of this will add meaningful value to the discussion and project.”
- Avoid getting involved in projects, meetings or discussions with people who are notorious for no follow-through. These are folks who’s only action is ‘meetings' ' and not tangible action. They lack an action muscle and don’t “value time” with clearly defined next steps and progress. Avoid “starters“ and attach yourself to “finishers”.
When you value your time, the quality of your collaboration will improve.
Value your time. Use "NO" to help yourself stay focused on what matters and where you can make the biggest impact.