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Sunday, 03 September 2017 18:39

Do more by saying "no"

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I briefly highlight this point to raise one of the major challenges with prioritisation. It is not the activity deciding of what you are going to do, but the decision not to do something. These may simply seem to be the inverse of each other. Perhaps. But psychologically it seems easier to say “yes I’ll do this”, than “no I will not do that”.

 

Sometimes when people prioritise they are so focused on what projects are put at the top of the list that they don’t really focus on what is going on at the bottom. This would be fine if those things just did not get done. In reality, many people find it very hard to stop pursing things even though they are low priority.

In the absence of my book, I want to look at one specific feature of good prioritisation – the ability to say “no”.

Swimming or a film?

Let’s imagine it’s a Sunday evening. You have a couple of hours of spare time. You want to go swimming. Given the time to will take to get to and from the pool, the length of time you normally swim for and adding in some time for changing, you think will take about 90 minutes. At the same time you also want to go and see a film. You know the film is 90 minutes long, and the cinema is 5 minutes’ walk from where you are.

Given your constraint of two hours – you can go swimming or to the cinema. You cannot do both. Of course, you might be able change the constraint and find another couple of hours. Let’s assume for now this is not possible. You really only have 2 hours. Whichever option you choose means not doing the other one.

One choice might be to become frustrated with the whole idea of choosing and choose neither – like the donkey in a medieval story (also known as Buridan’s Ass). This is the story of a donkey placed equidistantly between equally tempting piles of food. The donkey could not decide which one to go to. 

If you really want to go to the cinema and to go swimming, it’s still best to make a choice. Even if you cannot do both of them, it is better to do one of them than neither. In the ancient story, the rather grim outcome is that the donkey starves to death because it never eats from either pile. Even though all of us are smart enough to avoid the donkey’s fate, we really do sometimes do nothing for a failure to make a decision.

Learning to say no

I briefly highlight this point to raise one of the major challenges with prioritisation. It is not the activity deciding of what you are going to do, but the decision not to do something. These may simply seem to be the inverse of each other. Perhaps. But psychologically it seems easier to say “yes I’ll do this”, than “no I will not do that”.

Sometimes when people prioritise they are so focused on what projects are put at the top of the list that they don’t really focus on what is going on at the bottom. This would be fine if those things just did not get done. In reality, many people find it very hard to stop pursing things even though they are low priority.

One of the signs of really successful prioritisation is to say no to a lot of things.

One way that helps to avoid this is to turn my logic on its head. Choosing to do something important means not doing something less important. By the same logic choosing to do something less important means not doing something more important. Think of saying “no” as your way of buying capacity to do the things you really think are important. This is true for individuals, teams and organizations. 

If you do find something you want to do, but you think is not a priority for now, realise that when you say no you are not saying no forever. You are saying no to doing it now. Keep a list, a catalogue, a flip chart or a white board on which you list the things you are not working on now, but which you may come back to later. When you have finished a few tasks and are prioritising again, look back through this and see if there is anything you can now add. This stops you losing great ideas – it also seems to make it easier psychologically to drop something off your priorities.

I know there will be smart readers thinking that this implies the world of doing things is a zero sum game. It is not. If you become more efficient maybe you can do both A and B, not A or B. It is always worth seeking out ways to be more efficient. This does not change the importance of my point. Maybe you become so much more efficient you really can do A and B. My next question will be, so should you be doing B or C? In the end, no matter how efficient you are, you will have to make a choice to say no to something. 

Richard Newton is a consultant, award winning author and speaker who helps clients improve their project and change capabilities. He is the author of 16 books including the award winning The Management Book and The Management Consultant, Mastering the Art of Consultancy

Read 478 times Last modified on Sunday, 03 September 2017 18:49
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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