A key part of choosing activities is refusing activities. Good choosers are also good refusers. They know how to say no. One of the first steps to overwhelm is the inability to say no to activities that distract from value-added activities. Put another way, overcoming overwhelm is all about saying no.
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Most people think saying no involves only saying no to others. The real gist of saying no is being able to say no to your self. There is always the temptation to say yes to activities that are fast, activities that are fun, activities that are familiar, activities that are easy and instantly rewarding. It’s so much easier to clean the kitchen sink than to balance the checkbook. We sometimes even welcome interruptions as an excuse for procrastinating on activities we really don’t want to do.
When we choose instant-reward activities at the expense of value-added activities, our productivity goes down and very often some self-esteem with it. When we do this, we put ourselves into our very own choice-made activity trap. If we do this habitually, we begin to get a bigger and bigger backlog of value-added activities that need to be done, which, as you may well imagine, drives stress up . . . way up! That’s right! Full-blown overwhelm! To avoid this, it is critical to learn when, where, and how to say no to yourself!
Making great choices, knowing what activities to choose and what to refuse, begins by taking the long view. The long view is deciding what you want to occur in the future, and then specifying the activities required to make it a reality. Your future is any time beyond today.
This means creating a crystal clear picture of the outcomes you desire to produce with the activities you plan to execute. Just doing activities without a destination in mind is like spinning your wheels on an icy road. You are burning energy but not going anywhere.
Pre-determine and Anticipate
The process to use to avoid spinning your wheels is quite simple. First, you need to pre-determine outcomes; next, anticipate the activities required to produce the outcomes. The most important step is to then decide which activities need to be done today and do them.
Humans are wired to follow this exact process. Think about it. Either consciously or sub-consciously, we say to ourselves all day long, “What will I do next?” We then choose a desired outcome followed by the execution of activities that will make it occur. Much has been written about this simple process. It’s called goal setting.
Goal setting actually intimidates some people, but it shouldn’t. We are, by nature, designed to:
- Create a mental picture of what we want.
- Make a plan of the activities required to get those results. (This is what we refer to as building an activity path.)
- Do the activities we’ve planned.
What we are saying is that it is impossible to be a good activity chooser without first glancing into the future and visualizing the results you want.
Once you put this process in motion, you will not be like people who spin their wheels at work. People who do spin their wheels at work are on the slippery slope of indecisiveness, and indecisiveness is the enemy of getting started. Similar to a car in neutral, one which can’t go anywhere until it’s in gear, indecisiveness puts you in neutral time.
What’s the best way to stop wheel spinning and get in gear? First, take time to create clarity of purpose or a clear understanding of your desired results. Define very specifically the results you want.
Get Clear on the Priority
Clarity is the mother of decisiveness, and is the reason for the activities you choose and execute. The skill of making effectual choices starts with this process. Here is a simple, real-life example:
- The mental picture of the desired result is:
- Playing tennis with my friend Todd at 10:00 a.m. Saturday morning at the Fairmont Park Courts.
- The activities required to make this happen include:
- Pick up the phone and make the date with Todd.
- Call and reserve court time.
- Buy tennis balls.
- Leave for the courts at 9:30 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Isn’t that easy? You are wired to think and act this way by nature. You couldn’t get anything done without this process. It’s ridiculously easy.
Create, Then Do
Here’s proof you don’t need an expert to teach you how to set and achieve goals—you, yourself, are already an expert. You already do it every day of your life. You create a mental picture of the desired results (for instance, that you want to play tennis at 10 a.m. Saturday morning) and then you do the pictures. In other words, do the activities (make the appointment, schedule the court time, etc.) or take the steps necessary to get you to that desired result.
We’ve used this simple example to show you how you use this process every day without even realizing it. This process always works—whether it’s something as ridiculously easy as setting a tennis date or as complex as setting a career path goal.
People who do not have clear pictures of what they want in their lives automatically default their futures to the possibility of undesirable outcomes. They, in effect, leave their lives to chance or the “fickle finger of fate.” Ultimately, they see themselves as victims of the unfairness of life.
Once clarity of future outcomes is established, it is then possible to choose and refuse daily activities to insure choices that produce results.
Color Your Choices
We must become highly skillful at managing our daily activity traffic. Just as with heavy traffic on a freeway, our daily activity traffic congests our day. It makes it difficult for us to move forward with our plans. We are often forced to take detours away from our desired direction.
Like automobile traffic, our daily activity traffic can be controlled by a metaphorical traffic light. The traffic light will help us be better at the second part of being good activity choosers. Simply put, activity traffic management requires the ability to know when to stop, when to go, when to use caution, and when to say no.
We assigned the colors of the traffic light to the three types of activities we deal with every single day: Red, Green, and Yellow. We added Gray as a forth type. Yes, we know there isn’t a gray light, but use your imagination.
STOP! Do Now
Red means stop whatever you are doing and go do the red activity right this minute. Now! Red activities are high payoff and urgent (meaning they require immediate action). Some examples of red activities are: the network is down, an accident, equipment breakdown, project deadline, unscheduled meeting, customer complaint, sick child at home, or a sudden demand from the boss. These are no-brainer choices. When they occur, we must respond.
GO! The Majority of Your Day
Our activity traffic also includes green activities. Green stands for go! Go and do green activities as much as possible. Do as many green activities in a day as you can. Green activities do not require an immediate response (in other words, they’re not urgent), but be aware that many green activities can become red activities if we don’t do them when we should.
Green is where the money is made. Green is where relationships are nurtured. Green is where we learn and grow and become our best selves. Green activities help us balance our work and our personal life. Green activities are high payoff, value-added activities. Green activities include daily planning, family time, building business relationships, training, exercise, long-range planning, reading, hiking, running, cleaning, shopping, time with friends and virtually every activity that promotes our personal and professional well-being.
Yellow activities do not require immediate action and are not value-added activities, but they may have some degree of lesser value. But beware! Sometimes yellow activities come to us wrapped in the context of artificial urgency, like when an associate drops in and claims our help is needed right now. One of the challenges of modern technology is that it can create counterfeit urgency. An email or instant message announced with a beep or an alarm on your cell phone signaling a text message or missed call are examples of how some messages get our attention and seem urgent when often they really are not urgent at all. Nevertheless, we are tempted to respond to these counterfeit urgencies.
When yellow activities, disguised as urgencies, clamor for our attention, remember that yellow means caution. Yellow activities can and should be rescheduled for a later time, a time that is more appropriate. When we recognize a yellow activity, we need to reschedule it and proceed with what we were doing. Failure to do this puts us in a state of illusion. Oh, yes. We are busy all right, but probably spending time on activities of dubious value during our heavily congested day. Example of Yellow activities includes: purging email, office filing, expense report, planning vacation, paying bills, or scheduling a doctor appointment. Yellow activities needs to be done, but not today, tomorrow, or maybe even next week.
NO! Don’t Even Think About It
Gray activities are a complete waste of time. Don’t waste “gray matter” on gray activities. Just say no! If we are honest with ourselves, we all know what these are—a few examples include: gossip, junk mail, negativity, complaining, etc. Remember what we said earlier: the inability to say no is the first step to overwhelm.
The payoff for being skillful at choosing and refusing is huge. People who are good at it always have a leg up on the corporate ladder. It’s one of the most important survival skills in modern organizations today.
You can begin today to color your activity choices. Then, manage your choices with the metaphorical traffic light. You’ll make great choices that way. You’ll always know when to stop, when to go, when to use caution by rescheduling, and when to say no. Don’t be colorblind. See every activity in the context of its true color.