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Struggling to Say ‘No’? Try Prioritizing Better

Can't say "no" to others? Try to prioritize better.

How do we know when to say “no” to others, and say “yes” to ourselves without feeling guilty? 

This a tough balancing act for anyone, but especially for the helpers of the world, young professionals lowest on their totem poles, and busy moms and dads. People in these groups tend to work hard to support the people or causes or organizations they love, but don’t actually have time to slow down and savor the fruits of their efforts. 

So when exactly are we supposed to find time for ourselves to enjoy the things we care about? The solution to carving out time for ourselves can be boiled down to answering two simple questions: What is important? And, is it urgent?

Recognizing what is urgent and not urgent takes practice.  In fact, Dr. Stephen Covey has identified it as a key habit among successful people. The first step is knowing your priorities. Spend time thinking about who or what is really important to you — what are the fundamental parts of your life that you can’t do without? What would you do anything for? 

Then, when you know what is important, you can then categorize the things or people you want to prioritize by “urgent” and “not urgent.” Here’s a key point: happiness and effectiveness comes from putting most of our time and energy into what is important but not urgent.

If we make the mistake of staying in the area that is both urgent and important for too long, we will burn ourselves out. We should try to eliminate the unimportant as much as we possibly can by planning out our days and weeks ahead of time and then staying true to ourselves in critical moments where we must make difficult choices.

If you’re the type of person who wonders where the day has gone without having gotten all your critical tasks done, planning out your week will help keep you on track. This includes planning each day so that you can have blocks of time to focus on those critical tasks. If it’s scheduled, it’s more likely to get done. 

This prioritization is a strategy for both your professional career and your personal life. Connect this act of scheduling the critical tasks to the things you value most in life and you can never go wrong. 

Once you have scheduled all of your critical tasks, your schedule can be filled in with minor tasks and chunks of time can be left open to give you some flexibility in your days. And don’t forget to work intentional breaks into your schedule. After all, taking care of yourself is important, but never considered urgent — until it is.

Next, apply some intentionality to how much time you give to helping others. If you allow people to constantly pull you into their urgent matters at any given moment, you are telling them their priorities are more important than yours. You are also indicating that it is okay for them to constantly help them put out those fires. 

If you are regularly thinking about what is most important and planning out your day, you will find that saying “no” to someone becomes much easier. You can only hold the boundaries that keep you healthy if you set them intentionally. You might tell them you are available at a later time so that they are working within your schedule, rather than disrupting your workflow each day. They will quickly discern what constitutes a true emergency, and will gravitate toward the appropriate times to disrupt you.

If you have trouble telling people “no,” it might be because you have not reflected upon what is truly most important in your life — and then made a plan to prioritize it. Prayer is an effective way to do this kind of reflection because it includes a new perspective on your life: God’s. 

Find a silent area to focus your mind on what is important. Let go of what is urgent and simply settle into your own breathing. Invite God’s Holy Spirit to be with you, and review your past day, week, or month. Attend to where and when you felt most alive and grateful — these are clues to see God active in your life. A regular habit of this kind of prayer can help you see a path from “where you are” to “where you want to be” by revealing what is important in your life.  

Focusing on what matters most can be incredibly difficult when there are so many demands on our time and energy, but every day presents an opportunity to focus on what’s important — and to say “no” to what isn’t. Growing in this habit requires focus, integrity, discipline, and prioritization — all of which can make you a more effective person. 

This post is part 3 in a series on the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Read about the other habits here:

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