Obligation Elimination and the Power of Saying No

Learn more about the opportunity cost of saying yes, how to figure out which obligations to eliminate, and how to know when to say no.

Obligation Elimination and the Power of Saying No
Photo by Daniel Herron on Unsplash
“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

- Peter Drucker

I love this quote. I read it in It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and DHH (awesome book BTW). In relation to this quote, they talk about obligation elimination instead of time management. The core idea is that no matter how many tactics, tools, and productivity hacks you do, the most effective way to claw back your time is to say no to things. While I teach productivity and time management tools and tactics, I completely agree. This is in alignment with approaching all parts of your life with intention and being reflective about your habits. It’s about doing a better job of evaluating your decisions, what you say yes to, what you say no to, and how those decisions impact you.

The resounding theme of almost all my initial one-on-one coaching sessions is that there is NO TIME. Packed schedules are combined with an overwhelming number of commitments. TODO lists that are as long as my arm. But mixed in is the pressure to add more, do more, and be more. It’s not that surprising that so many people come to me burnt out.

Why is it so hard to say no?

Grumpy cat no.jpg

Once you get on the hamster wheel of never-ending meetings and commitments, it can be very hard to get off. If you step your toe out of your lane you are likely to spin around and around so instead, we often decide the solution is to just run harder. We keep adding more. Why? Why is it so hard to say no, even when we are already overloaded?

I think it is a combination of FOMO, with an incredibly heavy dose of people-pleasing. I know that I have experienced both of these countless times as I stared at my rainbow calendar trying to fit in one more thing. There are so many times I have thought to myself, “This will be fine!”...adds a fourth meeting to a day. Spoiler alert: It was not fine. It was one more step on the road to burnout.

The FOMO comes from not being able to clearly evaluate if a project/meeting/networking event/speaking gig is going to result in some kind of positive opportunity. There’s this intense feeling that if you don’t say yes, you might miss out on something. The challenge is that you can NEVER know what these encounters will result in, but the end result is saying yes to everything.

Adding in another fun layer of pressure is, for those of you who are people-pleasers (raises hand), saying no is really hard. It actually goes against your nature. When something is asked of you, you spend so much time worrying about letting other people down. You worry that they will be unhappy with you and don’t take any time to consider how that decision impacts you. Or, if you do, you dismiss your own time and needs as less important than theirs.

The opportunity cost of saying yes

Time is limited and there is an opportunity cost to everything we say yes to. This cost might be paid by your family or your partner. It might be paid by your body in low energy and health challenges. It might be paid by your current commitments being neglected. Burnout happens when the cost is higher than we are able to pay.

As is so eloquently implied in the above quote, there are things that we should be doing, and things that we shouldn’t. How do we figure out which is which?

How do I figure out which obligations to eliminate?

I open every one of my time management workshops by saying: Being busy is a choice and being intentional is the antidote to being busy. Obligation elimination is a way of being intentional about your decisions.

To start, there are two lenses through which you can look at your current commitments and identify if they are ones to keep, delay, delegate, or eliminate.


Evaluate your commitments against your values

How you define your values doesn’t matter. They can simply be the things that are important to you. They might just be the buckets of things you have defined as where you want to put your time and energy. Things like time with your family, your partner, exercise, being creative, supporting your community, or any number of things that you value.

You might also have values you have already defined for your company. For example, in my software consultancy, Code and Effect, our values are Relationships First, Do the Right Amount, Give a Damn, and Habits Drive Results. They are one of the lenses that we look through to decide if we want to take on a project and they inform the way we work.

Your evaluation will probably be a combination of both your personal and business values. Think about how the commitments you have already made fit into those values. For example, let’s say you identified spending time with your family as important to you. If you booked yourself for 3 events (virtual or otherwise) at the same time as your family dinner three weeks in a row, you should perhaps consider which of those events is the current priority. You don’t have to cancel everything, but step back and evaluate each commitment through the lens of how it impacts your family. Ask yourself, what can be delayed, delegated, or eliminated?

Evaluate your commitments against your goals

Another lens to evaluate your commitments is your personal and professional goals. For example, if one of your personal goals is to not work on Saturdays, what are the commitments that you have made that are interfering with that? What about your business goals? Can you say with certainty that the current commitments in your calendar move the needle towards the goals you have set for your business? If not, ask again, Ask yourself, what can be delayed, delegated, or eliminated?

You might not want to, or be able to, eliminate some of the obligations you have made, especially if you pride yourself on doing what you said you would do (again, raises hand). Instead, it might not be a hard no, but a ‘not this week’, or ‘not this month’. Identify obligations that fit in with your goals that can be pushed back to give you a bit more space in your day or week.

How do I know when to say no?

Now that you have made a bit more wiggle room in your schedule, how can you stop it from getting out of control again? How do you practice obligation prevention, aka, saying no?

Map out your ideal week

I wrote a whole post on this but the gist is that it can be powerful to think through and write down what your ideal week looks like. Essentially you brainstorm all of the things that you actually spend time on, including things like meal prep, eating, and bedtime routines, and fill them in on a spreadsheet or in your calendar, and see where the gaps are. You get a much more realistic view of how much time is available to you each week. Then you brainstorm the things that you want to be spending time on and see where they fit. They can be as high level or granular as you want.

By identifying and mapping out your ideal week, you have a framework to compare against when you are deciding to add a commitment. Ask yourself, does this fit in my ideal week?

Establish your protected times and days

As you think about your ideal week, see if you can also establish protected time blocks, or even protected days. A protected time block is a section of time that you don’t book anything in. It can be allocated for a specific type of task, or it can just be blocked off as open time. For example, I generally block off my mornings for focused tasks like writing or strategic planning. Unless absolutely necessary, I do not take meetings in the mornings because it is my most highly productive time. Similarly, I strictly protect Fridays. I almost exclusively will not take meetings or go to events on Fridays. It gives me an open day, once a week, to work on anything that either didn’t get done earlier in the week, work that requires a large chunk of focussed time or things like doctor appointments. This means that I leave Monday through Thursday afternoons for meetings.


How to combat FOMO

FOMO (fear of missing out) is not a good reason to do something. Instead, take a mental step back before you make a decision. Consider how accepting a project, going to a meeting, or attending an event aligns with your values and goals. It is impossible to know if you will meet your next big client at an event, or if you will go and just be exhausted at the end and regret going. Instead of doing something just in case, think about things like:

  • The impact it will have on your schedule
  • Whether you have to give something up to do it
  • How the rest of your day, week or month looks
  • Whether it will clearly move the needle towards your goals

For example, when I am asked to speak at an event, some of the things I think about include:

  • Will the audience include potential customers (as part of my goals)?
  • What other commitments do I already have the week of the event?
  • How much work will it be to prepare?
  • Am I being paid for it?
  • Is it something that I will enjoy?

Learning how to take the time to evaluate our commitments with intention, instead of letting our calendars fill up and your schedules get out of control takes practice and disciple. The key is to notice when it is happening and take the time to course-correct as quickly as possible.

"Needless commitments are more wasteful than needless possessions. Possessions can be ignored, but commitments are a recurring debt that must be paid for with your time and attention."

- James Clear