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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 productivity. Once you identify what’s 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 my time.

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

Like an overstuffed refrigerator where you can’t close the door, I wedged things into every tight corner of my weekly schedule. At 5am I checked email. Some days I had 8 hours of meetings. Then talked with coworkers on my drive home.

I thought I was becoming “successful.”

If you’ve read my articles long enough, most of you know I am also passionate about work-life balance. Therefore, I also tried to make sure I scheduled exercise, outdoors activities on the weekend, time with my wife, and church. Some weeks I actually managed to do this.

So what happened? I became completely exhausted and ineffective in all areas.

I wasn’t a focused leader at work 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 with my wife, or any other area of life for that matter.

I need constant reminders of this because of my addiction to fitting it all in or fear of missing out.

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

Clearly identify the few supremely important things

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

In one of my favorite books ever, 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 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 are even putting apps on phones that will help you monitor your screen time.

If you want to pursue real productivity and have real impact with your life, 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 last year—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.

The media loves to sensationalize overnight successes, but there is no such thing. Nearly all great things come from a consistent time investment over long periods of time in just a few 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 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.
  3. Take a vacation from saying YES. Spend 2 weeks saying No and notice what it does to the quality of your life or work.
  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

    *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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