A Daily Dispatch from the Front Lines of Leadership.


Developing Your “No” Muscle

People have an odd response when they feel out of balance and without control over their time. They add things to an already overflowing plate.

At the precise moment of unhealthy imbalance, they adopt a pet, take up a new sport, volunteer for a local charity, agree to serve on a board, move to a new home. Just to keep up requires giving up sleep, working longer hours, and disappointing just about everyone in their circle as they fail to keep commitments. If it wasn’t so painful to watch, it would be humorous.

Why would people drowning in tasks and commitments add more, thereby compounding the problem? Because when people feel overwhelmed by too many obligations, they feel poorly about themselves. The very thought of what looms ahead on the calendar zaps their energy and moves them toward depression.

To feel better about themselves, they decide, poorly, to do something new, something that will add energy. In the process, they soon find themselves underwater without a snorkel. Now what do they do?

Learning to say no as opposed to yes begins with a strong definition of what matters most. Trying to achieve a balance between competing priorities is a fool’s errand and a lousy metaphor.

The better approach is to think of a bullseye target with a set of concentric rings moving out from the center. The idea is to say yes to everything inside the target circle, doubling down on tasks that connect most closely to the bullseye. The required discipline is to say noto just about everything outside the target as often as possible.

No is a muscle that gets stronger with use. Better yet, it gives you more control, confidence, and energy the more you use it. Once you know what’s inside the target zone and demands an immediate yes, it is equally important to explicitly state what is outside the target and doesn’t garner any points. Creating a “No List” may be one of the most important tasks you will ever do.

Decide today, before any new requests, what you will say no to. Write them down. Keep this list ever-present as a reminder. Now use the muscle and make it stronger. Stop adding new items that create even less control. You’ll quickly get stronger than you ever thought possible.

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