The One Habit that Could Double Your Leadership CapacityJan 20, 2023
Welcome to Friday 411, issue #011. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll learn the superpower of saying “no” quickly and often.
Busyness wreaks havoc on your life and leadership. One habit that causes busyness is saying “yes” to too many commitments. Learn to default to no and defend your yes to create extra capacity.
Capacity is the ability of a leader to accomplish the best prioritities in less time. As a leader, you want to continually increase your capacity. Many productivity gurus share great tips and tricks to help you do that: time blocking, the Pomodoro technique, the 2-minute rule, etc.
But time management techniques cannot help you if you are overcommitted. If you’re like many leaders, you moved up the ladder because you could accomplish more than others around you. Unfortunately, that ability will eventually backfire, leaving you with too much to do and not enough time – both personally and professionally.
The biggest killer of your capacity is having too much to do. It’s what we call busyness. Busyness is an overcommitment to too many good commitments.
As a leader, your personal busyness and professional busyness affect each other. If you're too busy personally, it diminishes the quality of your work; and if you're too busy at work, it hurts your personal life.
To free up your capacity in life and leadership, replace a bad habit with a good one.
The Bad Habit: Saying Yes Too Quickly and Too Often
In your arsenal, you have one of the most powerful weapons to fight and destroy busyness. You’ve known this weapon and yielded it well from the time that you could talk.
You could use this weapon when you were a small child. It is the favorite word of many one-year-olds.
It’s the word no. Warren Buffet said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
Busy people have a difficult time saying no. They default to yes and defend their no.
Whenever you ask a busy person to take on an extra commitment and add something to their plate, their default response will be yes. When someone asks them to do something, it’s as if they believe they must do it because they are morally obligated. They default to yes.
If for some reason, they cannot do it, they will say no, but they won’t just say no and move on. They will give reasons why they can’t do it. They defend their no. Defending no opens the door for the person who’s asking to challenge their reasons or to solve the problems that their reasons impose.
- If you can’t do it because the time doesn’t work out, then let’s find another time to do it.
- If you’re overcommitted, then don’t worry, it will only take a little time each week.
I (Garland) got sucked into busyness during my junior year of college by defaulting to yes and defending my no. Before the school year started, I had a full course load, a new job, and an on-campus leadership position. I was also training for my first mountain bike race.
That’s when Amy, a friend of mine, invited me to interview for another volunteer organization. I should have thanked her and simply said “no.” Instead, I offered a reason.
I said, “I don’t think the role suits me.”
My excuse gave her the opportunity to counter with, “You’ll never know until you try.”
I came up with another reason. “I have a lot to do this semester.”
She had an answer for that, too. “This position won’t require that much time, just one or two hours every week.”
“I don’t think I have the skills you’re looking for,” I argued.
“Just come to the interview, and let us determine if you have the skills.”
I relented and signed up for an interview. Afterward, the team invited me to join the organization.
My mind responded, I’m not interested. But my mouth said, “I don’t think I have the time.”
“Just try it out and see if you can find the time,” she said.
I had run out of arguments.
That’s the moment that I became busy. I defaulted to yes. I defended my no. As a result, Amy easily overcame my no.
The Good Habit: Default to No; Defend Your Yes
If you’re going to increase your capacity, replace the bad habit with a good one. Learn to Default to no and Defend your yes. Implementing this good habit could double your leadership capacity.
First, make no your default answer. Rather than having yes as your automatic response, make it no. When someone asks you to commit to something else, your first inclination should be no.
Don’t just change your default, though. Change the way you say no. Make no a complete sentence. You don’t need to explain it, defend it, or give a rationale for it. You don’t need to apologize for it. Just say, “No, I can’t do that.” Or, if you’re from the South like me, “thank you, but no.” (We feel compelled to interact with people like we take our tea—never without a little sugar.)
Over our years of Executive Coaching, we’ve seen people squirm when they think about saying no. They’re afraid that they’ll offend people or lose friendships. Rest assured, we’ve never seen anyone lose a friend when they said no.
It really is as simple as the old anti-drug campaign slogan: “Just say no.”
No is a muscle. The more you exercise it, the easier it becomes to use. You can strengthen it just like any other muscle. It may be flimsy right now, but your no will get stronger. It can get so strong that you will rarely need to say it because people won’t ask you to make a commitment unless they are confident that you will say yes.
Build a new habit of defaulting to no, but don’t stop there. Default to no and Defend your yes.
How to Defend Your Yes
What does it mean to Defend your yes? A well-defended yes has three characteristics:
- A well-defended yes is slow.
Slow down before you say yes. Don’t rush into making a commitment. Take time before you say yes. You can say, “I’m interested in this. I need 24 hours to think about it.” Make your no fast and your yes slow.
- A well-defended yes is careful.
Think through the decision before you say yes. If you add a new commitment, consider the ramifications it will have.
- Do you already have obligations that conflict with this new responsibility?
- Will this undertaking add value to your life and others?
- Are you the best person for it?
- Do you know someone else who would be better?
- Does this opportunity advance your biggest dreams and highest priorities?
- A well-defended yes subtracts.
Don’t just add commitments; subtract them. Your time, energy, and attention are limited. If you decide to add something new to your life, remove other responsibilities.
Practice saying “no” when someone asks you to take on a project this week. It will be scary, but you can do it!
PS - If you want to learn more about beating busyness and increasing your leadership capacity, check out Garland's book: Gettin’ (un)Busy: 5 Steps to Kill Busyness and Live with Purpose, Productivity, and Peace
Want to live and lead more intentionally? Here are two ways we can help: