Subject: Join our new working group?
Subject: Time to meet for coffee?
Subject: Beta invitation for new web app
Subject: Sign up for 2010 lecture series?
If your January inbox looks like mine, it’s full of requests and invitations. The problem with the New Year’s holiday is that everyone resolves to do more at the same time. So each January brings a new batch of eager clients, exciting projects and easy-to-make commitments. It’s when we resolve to try new technologies, commit to new communications channels, and become regulars at new web sites.
You can look forward to the stimulation and excitement that comes with all of this, but it’s a fine line. If you’re not careful, you’ll hit Groundhog day facing information overload and exhaustion. You have to be selective about what you take on — and disciplined about retiring longstanding activities to make room for new ones. In other words, you have to be able to say, No. Frequently, politely and effectively.
The good news is that the same technologies that threaten to overload you with to-dos and appointments can also help you to say no. Here’s how I use my computer and the social web as allies in the discipline of saying no:
Set your intentions. Before you start saying no, make it clear to yourself what you want to say yes to. Sites like 43Things.com and SuperViva.com invite users to make a list of goals they want to achieve and experiences they want to have. Taking the time to write down your dreams can help you clarify what’s important to you, identify what you want to cross off this year, and get the community support to achieve it.
Prioritize your commitments. Use a spreadsheet to capture every single project you’re working on — even projects you’ve only started in your mind but know you want to attack. Create a second column to assign a priority level to each project, ranking items from 1-5 based on your gut level response. Then create a third column to jot down the name of anyone who could take over or help with each project on the list. Sort your projects according to priority, and set aside all but the top-priority items that can only be handled by you personally.
Make it easy to say no. When my e-mail inbox piles up with unanswered messages, you can bet that it’s full of e-mails that require a no — ones that I can’t bring myself to write. To make the process easier, I have created a few different signature files in my e-mail client, with polite “no” messages for different circumstances. I’d love to join you, but my schedule is really booked for the next month; or Thanks for thinking of us, but we’re only taking on a certain type of client right now; or That sounds like a great project, but my pro bono work is already committed for this quarter. Using these removes the burden of working up the energy to say no so often.
Streamline your online communications. Between e-mail, text messages, social networks and voicemail, and others, you may have ten different communications channels you need to process on a daily (if not hourly) basis. Consider a digital cleanse to help you evaluate the footprint that all these channels have on your productivity and happiness. Take a week in which you limit your online communications to a bare minimum. At the end of the week, close down your accounts on any networks that take more time than they’re worth, or edit your profile on those networks to tell people you prefer to be contacted by other means.
Make “no” your default answer. Plan on saying no to all new social network invitations, projects, and events. Say yes only if the invitation or opportunity meets a short set of criteria. For example, I look for conferences that combine business development (getting clients), professional development (improving skills or knowledge) and personal development (regeneration or personal growth) and only attend events that promise meaningful value on at least two out of three of those fronts. Write your criteria down and stick them to your screen, or put them on a digital stickie note. Soon, you’ll be saying yes to only those opportunities that meet the criteria staring you in the face.
None of these practices eliminates the anxiety that comes from saying no, or the fear that you may be passing up a fantastic opportunity. But it’s precisely because saying no is so difficult that we need tools and systems to help make it a little easier, and a little more habitual. The more you say no, the better you’ll perform when dealing with the important few projects or tasks that get a big yes.