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“It is the super-achievers, and only the super-achievers, who have learned to say No.”


–Peter Drucker

 The word “NO” might be the most important word when it comes to being extremely productive.

Once you identify what is supremely important (read prior posts in the 10x your productivity series), you need to start saying NO to a lot of stuff—a lot.

Let me explain.

A few years ago, I got a promotional opportunity I had been seeking for years. In an effort to cope with the pace of my new job, I became obsessed with maximizing every minute of my time.

I took classes, read articles, watched webinars, and even read mind-numbing books on how to organize email.

Like an overstuffed refrigerator that stuff falls out of every time you open the door, I wedged things into every tight corner of my weekly schedule. At 5am I checked email. Some days I had 8 to 10 hours of meetings. Then I returned calls on my drive home.

I thought I was becoming “successful.”

If you’ve read my articles long enough, most of you know I am a passionate advocate of work-life balance. Therefore, I also tried to make sure I scheduled exercise, hung out with friends, spent time with my wife, or went to church.

Some weeks I actually managed to do this.

So what happened?

I became completely exhausted, and less effective in all areas.

I wasn’t a focused leader and the listening skills I honed so carefully in graduate school began to go down the toilet. I had a really hard time being present in any area of my life. My mind was constantly racing trying to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I was always thinking of what I had to do next.

I had to come to terms with my addiction to fitting everything in and fear of missing out.

By trying to do everything, I was also diluting my time and energy in every area, at work and home.

I didn’t know at the time that we are biologically wired to “add” things instead of “subtract” them (see my prior post). This makes subtracting stuff from our lives more difficult than adding things, and less likely if we don’t really work against this inherent tendency. Ever tried to get rid of old clothes? You know you haven’t worn that shirt since your chess club photo in 1985, but somehow you still cant bear to part with it. I rest my case. For a stimulating read with painstaking research, check out Leidy Klotz’s book, appropriately titled Subtract.

Clearly identify the most important things

Organizational expert Patrick Lencioni says it this way, “When everything is a priority, nothing is.”

In one of my favorite books of all time Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, author and Stanford lecturer Greg Mckeown tells a funny story about the word priority. The word priority was first used in the 1400s. For nearly 500 years, the word was singular and meant—the very first thing.

Only in the 1900s did we begin to use it to mean—multiple first things.

Every person has limited time and energy. And we have never been more distracted or had so many choices than we have in the modern world.

For most of us, we face an endless onslaught of texts, emails, social media, advertisements, buzzes, dings, and whooshes. Any number of devices can fight for our attention.

Our lives have become so crammed, most of us simply adjust to it and live our entire lives this way!

Screen addiction isn’t even interesting news anymore. So many studies have confirmed the dangers that they had to put apps on phones that help us monitor our screen time.

If you want to pursue real productivity and have greater impact, you must learn to say No to lots of things so that you can ensure the vitally important things in your life get the best of you.

Clear priorities for our lives, and our days, can help us surgically slice through the endless potential distractors.

One key principle from our marriage class a few years ago—No one arrives at a great marriage by accident. Cultivating a deep relationship takes large and consistent investments of time. There is no hack.

Whether you want to develop a great marriage or become a great leader, it will mean that you need to cut out a lot of low-value activities in your life. That part is often easy.

But it also means saying no to a lot of good opportunities, so that you have room for the very best.

If you want to be an elite leader or leave a great legacy at home, you need to develop powerful No muscles. You need to have focus and intensity for only a few truly important things.

“Only once you give yourself permission to truly stop trying to do it all, can you make your highest contribution to the world.”

–Greg Mckeown

Turn information into action

  1. Take the time to identify your highest value activities at work and home. Do a life plan or a one page business plan to keep your sights focused on high-impact goals and tasks that help you become the person you want to be or clearly move the needle at work.
  2. Eliminate obvious low value activities from your schedule. Cut one out this week. Uncomitt from something!
  3. Take a vacation from saying YES. Set a daily reminder on your calendar and try to avoid any additional comittments for 2 weeks. 
  4. Experiment with saying NO to something this week in any of the following areas and write down what you learned:
    • Coworkers
    • Friends
    • Family
    • Social Media
    • Television
    • Email
    • Your boss

    Have a great weekend!


    *If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.

    Suggested Resources

  1. Read the rest of this series
  2. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less—Greg Mckeown
  3. The Book of No by Susan Newman PhD
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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