“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.” —Steve Jobs
“Saying no is the most powerful word in the English language. Saying no to something means you’re able to say yes to something else that may be more important.” — Andrew Zimmer, Creator and host of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Food Series.
On the south side of my house lies the perfect bed for tomatoes. Every spring I plant several. By mid-summer my plants are impressive 8-foot sprawling giants.
Even though I know pruning produces the best crop, I hate to do it. Theoretically, each tiny white blossom on each branch is a potential tomato. It seems like the bigger the plant, the better, right? No, they just don’t have the necessary resources to turn each blossom into a prize specimen. In order to produce the firmest, juiciest, tastiest tomatoes, I have to chose quality over quantity by aggressively pruning stems before they generate many bloom-laden branches.
What do tomato plants and CEO’s who must prioritize have in common? Great question. Both can overcommit and be optimist.
Do your lists of unfinished projects sometimes resemble my monster mid-summer plants? Just like them, sometimes your priorities need pruned.
“Yes” is a very dangerous word when it comes to managing your priorities and using your time effectively. When left alone, tomato plants produce more buds than they have resources to support. You also have limits. Do you say “Yes” to too many budding ideas? Do you lose track of all your commitments? Do you often feel overwhelmed?
Travis Bradburry, author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 says, “Say no”. Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco shows that the more difficulty that you have saying no, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout, and even depression.
What is happening each time that you say “yes”? Here are some common reasons I hear from my Vistage members:
It forces you to look at the difference between urgent (“weight”) and importance (urgency or due date). Steven Covey recommends that you spend most of your time in Quadrants 1 & 2.
Make a list of all your commitments and number them in order of importance. Focus on only those five. You may add another priority only when one item is complete.
Contact everyone involved with a project on your non-essential list, and let them know that you over-committed. This can be a difficult exercise, but, just like my tomato plants, your resources are finite.
David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, recommends reviewing your lists as often as necessary to verify your choices about what to do next. Spend some additional time each week to get clear, get current, and get creative. Block out your planning time on your calendar so nothing overrides it.
Evaluate all meetings that you attend. What is the purpose of each? How effectively are they conducted in relation to that purpose? How does your participation meld with your top priorities?
All too often, I see CEO’s doing tasks they shouldn’t because they don’t have an effective executive assistant, or they avoid dealing with their ineffective one that they do have.
When you lead a company, unanticipated events happen, and you must handle them. Instead of planning every minute of your day, allow an hour in your schedule for the unplanned.
To avoid an overcrowded closet, whenever I buy a new piece of clothing, I force myself to get rid of an old one. Managing priorities is similar; for every new priority or commitment you make, delegate or eliminate another one.
Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, defines Deep Work as, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.”
Block out 90 minutes on your calendar when your energy and creativity is high for your own deep work.
Email can steal your valuable time and focus.
Your brain requires adequate downtime. A recent article in Scientific American, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime, summarizes the evidence that “mental breaks increase productivity, replenish attention, solidify memories, and encourage creativity.”
Tomato “suckers”, or side shoots, are sprouts that grow in a space between a stem and a branch. If left to grow, each becomes another large stem with branches, flowers, fruit and more suckers of their own, continuously stretching the finite resources of the plant.
Prune your “priority suckers” early by saying “No” to all but your most important priorities so your most important fruit can grow and thrive. You will be rewarded with increased focus and a welcome sense of accomplishment.
Please share your biggest obstacle or technique for prioritization.