Stress is often the byproduct of having a full plate, sometimes an overflowing plate. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that we have much choice about what goes onto our plate. We can choose where to devote our time, energy, and attention. Instead of saying yes to piling on our plate, we have the ability to say no.
The popular quote from Steve Jobs—“Innovation means saying no to 1000 things”—can tell us as much about managing stress as it does about innovation. Saying no to some things means saying yes to other things. It means triaging, preserving limited resources for what matters most.
Saying no is not about closing doors but instead about creating space for your most vital work to flourish.
The cost of spreading yourself thin
Strategy is about being smart with your priorities—committing your company to initiatives that will yield the highest return and that fit into a long-term vision. Organizations that take on too many commitments hamper their chances of success.
All too often, leaders are unable or unwilling to make the necessary difficult choices. A Harvard Business Review study found that 64% of executives surveyed globally report they have too many conflicting priorities. Organizations that overcommit inevitably have overwhelmed and stressed employees. The good news is that companies who do make hard choices are rewarded for doing so. The same study found that firms with fewer strategic priorities experienced higher revenue growth.
People look to business leaders for vision—someone who can separate the signal from the noise. Before you can have a vision, you must first have clarity—and clarity involves simplifying and saying no.
The curse of interruptions
Leaders need to make tough decisions about big things like strategic priorities, and about smaller matters as well. The Steve Jobs quote may sound like an exaggeration at first, but we make thousands of decisions every day. Some are minor, but many have consequences for where we invest our time and energy.
Decisions about what to focus on and for how long have substantial ripple effects. Research at the University of California on “task switching” finds that information workers switch tasks roughly every three minutes, and switch projects approximately every ten minutes. Half of these interruptions are self-initiated. Constant switching generates pressure to work faster and higher stress levels.
For projects that require sustained focus, we must find the discipline to carve out blocks of uninterrupted time (preferably in blocks of 90 minutes). We can improve organizational performance by making it easier for employees to do so as well. One strategy for minimizing interruptions is to designate a day of the week as meeting-free. Employees will value the opportunity to see crucial projects through to completion, and to have greater control over their workday.
Delegate and develop
It is important to remember that when you take something off your plate, you are often putting it on someone else’s. When you say no to an additional responsibility and instead find the right person to take it on, you are also saying yes to them. You are giving them an opportunity to step up and shine, as well as giving yourself an opportunity to develop leadership and initiative in others.
An unwillingness to delegate can indicate a lack of trust or a reluctance to share power. Just as often, it stems from a recognition that, in the short term at least, it can take more time to train someone to do something than to do it yourself. Successful leaders realize that this investment of time pays off in the long run. Developing talent and capacity in your employees should always be a priority.
Sharing responsibility with others and then investing time and energy in their professional development sends a powerful message. It says you trust them and believe in them to run with critical assignments. Additionally, it establishes you as a leader who develops other leaders, not a leader looking for followers.
Saying no to a proposal is different from saying no to the person bringing it. It is critical to say no in a way that does not shut down another’s initiative.
A key to saying no constructively is always to honor and respect the intent behind the idea. Is there an alternative way of achieving the same goal? In other cases, can you show support without taking on a significant new commitment?
In my work as an executive coach, I find that feelings of guilt often prevent my clients from clearly saying no when they should. I work with leaders on reframing such difficult decisions as win-win scenarios—in almost every instance, saying no is more affirmation than rejection. It is about preserving precious time and energy for top priorities and giving others an opportunity to take the lead. It is always better to deliver fully on a handful of goals than half-heartedly on many.
When you align your decisions to a long-term vision and are transparent about your reasoning, hearing no becomes easier to swallow. Your colleagues and subordinates will respect you for your clarity. Moreover, when you are able to frame your decisions as a positive win-for-all, you will be able to deliver them confidently, and in turn, inspire confidence in others.
It can be challenging to say no when you are in a position of leadership. Leaders see themselves as hyper-responsible and uber-competent. Sometimes the most valuable thing I can do is to serve as an independent sounding board to help my clients think through tough choices.
In a business environment that makes so many demands on our time and our attention, less is more. Learning to distinguish purpose work from busy work will bring clarity and focus to your day. Refining a lean vision for your company will allow you to choose strategically and avoid unnecessary stress.
When you master the fine art of saying no, it is not your plate that will overflow, but rather your energy. Freed from a cluttered to-do list and mind, you will stay on track and on point. You will be in a position to seize the day and your life.