How to say “No”

There’s one data point from my recent survey of business owners that’s still haunting me. When asked, “What would you consider your biggest personal challenge?” Almost half of all respondents said, “Setting my own priorities.”

This was the top response for owners of all sizes of businesses, for new business owners, and people who had owned their business for decades. We’re not good at it, and we don’t seem to learn how to get better.

The answer is simple, but not easy

If you want to make it easier to set priorities, you need to have fewer projects going at once.

If we are choosing between a super-profitable priority and a terrible time-waster, we don’t have trouble setting priorities. When there is an abundance of good things to focus our time and energy on it gets much more difficult. When we face the choice of whether to make some marketing videos, follow-up with past clients, or work on writing a book, how do we choose?

Our brains aren’t good at comparing a wealth of good things. Every day (or hour) we might come up with a different answer to that question, and so we do a little on this thing, and a little on that thing, and never make progress.

Don’t choose every day

One idea that came out of the software development world is to use a sprint.

You have a process to set fixed priorities for a short period of time (one or two weeks), and then everyone executes on those fixed priorities and reports back. Our progress during that week or two will reveal more information, and we can re-assess and set new priorities for the next two weeks.

The book Traction takes a similar approach with a longer time horizon. Its author, Gino Wickman, recommends setting quarterly priorities for your whole team that do not change. No new priorities can be added during that time frame either!

In either case, the secret is that the priorities stay fixed for the duration of the sprint. You can’t change or add priorities, and you have to deliver results at the end.

If you want to get better at setting priorities, you have to say no (temporarily) to lots of good things, so you can focus on the best things.

Pick a lane and stay in it.

On Thursday we’ll talk about how to decide what is “best”!

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