As we begin a new year and make plans for all we'd like to accomplish in 2014, I submit that one of the best resolutions you can make in the coming year is learning to say, "No." It is one of my biggest struggles and experience has shown it is a big struggle for many of my lawyer and law firm clients as well.
In a post entitled, "Why (And How) Creative People Say No" Steven Pressfield quotes from an article by Kevin Ashton, in which the writer compellingly says:
Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.
Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.
Although this post is written with "creative people" in mind, I think it applies to lawyers as well. There is a fear not only of appearing rude or mean by saying no, but when it comes to accepting clients or assignments, there's a fear that turning away business now will mean that you can't put food on the table in the future.
But the opposite is more often true; the more you learn to say "no," the stronger you'll be and the more work you'll receive, because you'll be focusing on the right kinds of clients, the right kinds of projects, and your core strengths. Too often, we say yes because we want to be nice, because we genuinely want to help, or simply because we're flattered that we've been asked. But saying yes for these reasons often means that we're putting someone else's agenda and priorities ahead of our own - and possibly even ahead of the needs of our clients.
Sometimes saying "no" means simply setting limits; there may be some activities you'd like to engage in, but on a limited basis; all of your clients can't be pro bono clients, and you can't spend all of your time helping others and neglecting your own work. While these activities may be useful to build your reputation, improve relationships with others, build skills or improve visibility, they may not put money in your pocket, and they can quickly take over.
It is this concept that inspired what I call the "Don't Do List." The idea is to identify, before they arise, the activities or obligations that you'll say no to, which ideally would be anything that distracts you from the main goals that you want to accomplish, or that pulls you away from the core activities to which you should be devoting your time. Set limits by deciding in advance how many such projects you want to take on. By identifying in advance what you're going to say no to (or what you're doing now that you should eliminate in the future), when the time comes to say "no" it will be easier.
When you say "yes" to something, make sure that you're doing it for your benefit, and that it relates to your priorities, rather than someone else's. Ask yourself whether it's worth setting aside what you would have done and replacing it with this task, project or client. What is the advantage to you?
For me, saying no and setting limits are a constant work in progress. I'm working on my "don't do" list for 2014 now -- how about you?
(Hat tip to Barbara Nelson for alerting me to the Steven Pressfield post)