Sometimes I feel anxious about the things I want to do and/or things I haven’t done: the books and articles I want to read, the games I want to play, the TV shows and films I want to watch, skills I want to learn, etc. There’s no dearth of things to do. The fact is that the things in these lists will only end up growing over time. The question becomes: can we (or should we) keep pace with it? At any given time, how do you decide what to do and what not to do? As they say, 20 years from now, we’ll be more disappointed by things we didn’t do than by the ones we did.
When it comes to deciding what to work on and what not to work on, you can do anything, but not everything. You can choose to do a lot of things averagely or do a few things well. You must pick and choose a few things that you want to focus on while leaving the rest for later (or never).
We can’t do it all, nor should we want to. Having more stuff (and experiences) is not the answer, and we could be doing those things to no end. Part of the problem is that we are looking for something on the outside when we should be looking inside.
Incidentally, when we say yes to a few things, we are implicitly saying no to almost everything else. Saying yes to a few things makes it easy to say no to others’ requests, especially when it clashes with our own. Because, as we know, there are only so many things we can do. When we do end up saying no to others’ requests, we respect our time and attention more, and this causes others to respect our time.
Here are some ideas for figuring out what (and how) to say yes to:
Figure out which things you want to do every day no matter what. This is your list of essentials that you do to make your week a success, even if you can’t accomplish anything else. For me, those everyday things in a given week right now include doing creative work, marketing my services and delivering value to clients, reading for an hour, exercising, and making the most of my discretionary time for everything else. Those are my essentials. My day (and week) is a success when I do all those five things well. Everything else can wait for the weekend or later.
Derek Sivers proposes the idea of saying “Hell Yeah!” to a project or “No”. He says that if it’s not a strong “Yes”, it should be a “No”. While it’s great to work only on projects that you’re passionate about, there are times when you want to take on projects even when you’re not excited about them for a variety of reasons.
Use the Explore, Evaluate, Execute process to say yes to few things. For instance, if you’re out at a buffet (which is a bad idea for many reasons, but I digress), you can’t eat everything. You can try, but in trying to do that you will end up overeating, which is not what you want. You can either eat a lot of food in small amounts or you can try a few things, then pick the ones you want to have more of and be satisfied with that. In other words, you can either go small on many things or go big on a few things. With the former, you’ll be compromising quality for quantity, which you’ll gain with the latter. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with trying out a few things in moderation (if that’s what you want) rather than having more from a few things since they both even out.
Capture everything that has your attention, then go through each of those things using the E3 process to figure out what you want to work on next that would make the most impact in your personal and work areas in the long term. You can’t do everything, so you must pick and choose. This is when priority comes in, but I think of it more as a high-level focus than any individual project or task.
Going back to my example in the introduction, here’s how I deal with the things I want to do that I haven’t gotten around to doing just yet. Rather than looking at them as things in an endless list that are easy to feel anxious about, I think of them as an area of focus for my life. For me, doing these things would fit into my discretionary time. Then, it’s simply a matter of picking and choosing things over time.
You can create a Now page on your website to share the projects you’re working on with others; you can share your personal or work projects. This lets others know where you’re putting your time and attention. So when you get requests from them for demands on your time, you can refer them this page, which makes it easier (and acceptable) to say no to their requests.
Here’s the thing: unless we say yes to a few things at any given time by design (by actively deciding and committing to them), we will most definitely end up with doing more things by default. That’s just how it works. We will find it more difficult to say no to others. We’ll end up helping others at the cost of our own well being. As a result, we’ll spread ourselves thin. Not to mention, the results from our efforts will be less than great. We would be making progress a mile wide and an inch deep.