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Sunday MBA

Sometimes saying ‘no’ leads to better productivity

Sunday MBA provides ideas on running better businesses and succeeding in the modern workplace, this week from Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of “How to Invest Your Time Like Money.”

Believing that more is always more is a dangerous assumption.

There’s a cost to complexity. Every time you commit to something new, you not only commit to doing the work itself but also remembering to do the work, dealing with the administrative overhead, and getting it all done on time.

The unfortunate result of taking on everything that comes your way is you end up spending more of your time managing the work and less time immersing yourself in what’s most important and satisfying. People creating the most value for their organizations take a different approach. They start with radical clarity on meaningful work that creates results.


Then when something new comes up, they stop and evaluate before saying “yes.” Sizing up new opportunities — from a simple request for a meeting to a large request for a project — isn’t about being insubordinate or unhelpful. It’s about recognizing new activities for what they are: a request for time that if not managed properly could pose a serious risk to the stellar execution of the most significant priorities.

It’s simple math. Each additional project divides your time into smaller and smaller pieces so you have less of it to devote to anything. Whereas if you reduce your number of responsibilities, you have more time to devote to each one.

The best way to break out of this vicious cycle of over-commitment and underperformance is to very carefully manage what you agree to do. Here are a few steps you can take to prevent overloading your plate:

Create a pause. Whenever possible, avoid agreeing to new commitments on the spot. Instead, slow down the decision-making process to give yourself the space to make a reasoned choice. First ask clarifying questions. For example, if someone requests that you take on a presentation, say, “That sounds interesting. What did you have in mind?” Ascertain how much prep work it will require. Then, ask for time to review your commitments and get back to them with an answer.


Say “no” early and often. If you immediately know you don’t have the capacity to take on a project, say “no” as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to decline the request and the more frustrated the other person will be when they receive your reply.

Think through the project. If you want to take on the project, stop to think through what you need to do to complete it. Map out what you know and then make rough estimates of the amount of time you think the steps might take.

Review your calendar. Once you’ve thought through the commitment, review your calendar. This allows you to see where you have — or don’t have — open space in your schedule. If your calendar has no time free, you have two options. The first is to simply decline. The second would be to consider renegotiating your current commitments so that you could take on the new project.

Adjust your commitments. If you take on something new that will affect other projects, make people aware of what they can or can’t expect from you. They may not prefer that you made another initiative a priority, but if you’re aligned with your boss and your goals, you’re making the right choice. Also, if you let people know what to expect as soon as possible, they’re less likely to be upset.


Once you’re clear on commitments, get them on the calendar. That way you know you have time for the work you’ve just signed up to do. With this honesty in your scheduling, you can do the work and do it well. Give yourself hours at a time — even whole days to immerse yourself in excellence. When you’re not trying to eke out 20 or 30 minutes here and there between e-mails and meetings, you can accomplish work of real value — and enjoy the process.

Reprinted with permission of Harvard Business Review.