Ruthless Focus and the Art of Saying No

Goal-setting isn’t about adding more work. It’s about ruthlessly saying no to everything else. Productivity isn’t defined by how much work you do, but the amount of work you ignore.

I’m a big fan of the 30-Day Trial system for changing habits. I’ve used it to rewire my health, work and lifestyle. One of the most important factors for success with the system, I’ve found, is only conducting one trial at a time.

The system works by picking one habit, you’ll focus on exclusively for thirty days. After that, it becomes part of your life and is easier to continue. But, I’d argue the real power of the system comes from deciding which change to focus on, and ruthlessly ignoring the rest.

Your Most Productive Day

I accomplished more work in the last month towards this website, than I did in the eight months prior to it. Despite this, I felt considerably less stressed than I did during the first eight months. The reason was simple: I was able to focus. Instead of managing large academic projects, courses and extra-curricular activities, I only had to focus on this business.

The lesson is obvious: if you want to get something done, ignore everything else. But, I think it’s worth restating because many of us (including myself) fall into the trap of saying yes to everything and focusing on nothing at all.

The “Have-To” List is Pretty Short

Few people have the luxury of being able to focus on their goals full-time. If you have a job, family or other set responsibilities, you may not be able to focus ruthlessly on one pursuit. But mixed in with the list of genuine necessities are a lot of things that could be safely ignored.

What would happen if you said no to any of these things?

  • Twitter
  • Television
  • Volunteering
  • Clubs, Memberships or Associations
  • Parties
  • Magazines
  • Email
  • Blogs
  • Other Projects

I’m not saying you should eliminate these entirely. Or even reduce your usage. Just realize that there are probably a number of things you automatically say yes to out of guilt or habit. Things that could be ignored once, twice or indefinitely without major consequences.

Paying Yourself First

One of my favorite personal finance tips is to pay yourself first. The idea is that you should take any savings money immediately from your earnings and put it into a separate bank account. Because, if you wait until the end of the month to save what’s left, you’ve probably spent it all.

I think this idea applies equally to your goals. Pay yourself first because, if you pay other people first, then you won’t have enough time left for what’s truly important to you.

There are going to be a few things that must come first. If your goal is to start a microbusiness, but you still work a full-time job, not getting fired is your first priority (at least until your microbusiness can support you). Same with important family concerns.

However, between the list of absolute necessities and your goals are a lot of shoulds. I don’t suggest that you stop taking out the garbage, eliminate television and stop seeing your friends. But just that you should do these shoulds only after you’ve paid yourself.

Avoid Being Overcommitted

The easiest way to maintain a ruthless focus is to say no to major commitments other people ask of you that aren’t in line with your goals. I had to do this recently when I was asked to be in the leadership committee for my Toastmasters club. I had been in a leadership role previously, and without my help, the club would not be able to continue. Saying no was difficult, but necessary.

But, many times this isn’t the case. You’ve overcommitted yourself and only realize afterwards that you don’t have enough time to pay yourself. I’ve done this in the past, and I don’t believe in backing out of a commitment.

If the commitment is unimportant to the other people involved, resign from it. Let them know that you’re sorry, but you didn’t envision it would be this much work. If your commitment is more than 9-12 months, I’d make a similar apology and resignation. It may not be great for your reputation, but donating that much time to a goal that isn’t your own only hinders their efforts to find someone who can really perform.

For shorter commitments, I try to see them through. I was involved in a large group project that made it difficult to pay myself first. But, because my role was crucial to the other members, and the commitment was only a few more months, I saw it to the end.

However, even if you are overcommitted, you can still take steps forward. I made sure I didn’t commit to anything new being asked of me. This way, when my old commitments expired, I would be able to focus ruthlessly on my goals once more.

Saying No is an Unselfish Act

If you don’t put your goals first, nobody else will. This may sound selfish, but it isn’t. If your goals are aligned with helping yourself and helping other people, the most altruistic thing you can do is to put your goals first. If you’re rich, healthy or organized, you’ll be in a much better position to help people.


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