Say No to Everything That Is Not an Absolute Yes

A simple productivity standard to help you figure out what’s most important

“turned on white YES LED signage” by Julian Lozano on Unsplash

This idea sounds so simple and obvious that I feel a bit stupid sharing it as an actual thing.

But as obvious as it sounds when stated out loud, when written and formalized, it hasn’t been obvious to me in years of working for myself, working with clients, researching and testing productivity tools, and writing about productivity, creativity, and work.

I have drifted quite often into this loop:

  • have a problem with productivity/creativity
  • look for a new approach, system, a new tool, a new methodology or rule to solve the problem
  • apply the new thing
  • have the same problem, but with a shiny new wrapper on it.

Sometimes, a new system or a better tool is the solution you need.

But many times, it is not.

Many times, the shiny new tool is adding another layer of organization, arrangement, or process to the core problem. It isn’t solving anything; it’s disguising it.

Given enough time, the problem will emerge, as annoying as before.

The new system will break, the new tool won’t quite work, the new method will crumble, and there it is: the same problem as before, a little bigger and uglier and smellier.

Knowing What to Do Next

A big problem for many of us is knowing what to do next: having clearly defined priorities, trusting those priorities, and using them consistently to choose how we allocate our time and energy. 
We live in a world of complexity and deal with an overwhelming amount of options. We always have, really — the infinity of possibility hasn’t changed — but its proximity to us certainly has. All those infinite options aren’t theoretical anymore; they’re actively screaming in our faces, demanding our attention. The result is a lot of pressure and a debilitating sense of urgency about pretty much everything.

Pressure and urgency make it difficult to think carefully and choose wisely.

We tend to start reacting — responding to whatever urgency is screaming the loudest — rather than making thoughtful decisions about how to do our meaningful work.

We do have some tools to help us sort out what’s urgent from what’s important.

There’s the Eisenhower Matrix:

And there’s the Ivy Lee Method:

There’s the 6-box Method:

And there are many other methods. All of these are excellent tools, but all of them have one important prerequisite: you must already know what is important.

Otherwise, how do you assign tasks to a box on the matrix, or prioritize them correctly on the list, or know which box they belong to?

If you don’t have a clear standard for what an important task is, you will agonize over (or skip) sorting and prioritizing. Then you won’t trust your judgment; you’ll second-guess your choices, try to multi-task, and feel distracted by what *might be more important* than the task you’re trying to complete.

If none of that sounds familiar to you, move on. You’ve graduated from this issue! Go do some stuff.

If any of this rings true, however, here’s something that might help.

A Standard for Defining What’s Important

I decided I needed a standard to help me figure out what’s important. What matters, for me? For my work? For my long-term vision?

For me, nothing is truly important if I can’t give it an absolute yes.

Of course, that means I have to clarify what gets an absolute yes; what does absolute yes mean? How do I define it? How do I apply it objectively? How can I set a standard for Yes that I can apply to all possibilities and trust completely?

Here’s what I came up with: three questions that I ask about any possibility or task.* If I can give a yes to each question, that task or possibility qualifies as Important.

Yes to each question = Absolute Yes = It’s important

Here are the three questions:

1. Can I say Yes with joy? 
2. Am I Equipped and ready? 
3. Does it Support my mission(s)?

You could change “current mission” to whatever makes sense for you.

I use the term Vision to talk about my long-term trajectory; I use the term Mission to talk about my current projects. You could substitute focus, goal, aim, theme, habit, system, target, whatever: just make sure it’s defined clearly, whatever it is. Otherwise, the third question will be meaningless and then the whole thing kind of falls apart.

Using The Questions as a Standard of Importance

Here’s a quick example of how this standard of importance works for me.

A possibility comes up: say, an interview request for some sort of productivity round-up.

Can I say Yes with joy? (2–5 minutes)
If I can’t say Yes with joy, then I’m done. The possibility is out.

This question requires honesty and some internal digging. Sometimes I initially resist something, but it’s not because I don’t want to do it; it’s because I really want to do it, and I’m afraid of failing. Be as honest as you can with this question and take a little time to think about it. I recommend a pause, or a moment of listening, letting things bubble up. If the possibility sounds good in theory, but your internal response isn’t a joyful yes, ask yourself why and listen to your own answer.

At first, this will feel awkward and weird and pointless. (If you’re in the habit of meditating, it will feel less awkward.)

Keep at it.

Ask the question and listen for the answer. It might take several minutes at first; with practice, you’ll get better at hearing your real response, your true reasoning, and knowing if it’s a Yes with joy, a Yes without joy (i.e., a yes from obligation, guilt, or ego), or a No.

Am I Equipped and ready? (2 minutes)
If I’m not equipped and ready to start on this possibility right away, it’s out.

  • Equipped
    There are more options than time. There are more possibilities than I will ever have energy to take on. Why waste time on the possibilities that I’m not equipped to do right now? Being equipped to do something means you have the tools, resources, and understanding needed to start working on it right away.
  • Ready
    Being interested in something and equipped to do it isn’t quite enough; you also need to have available time. If not, you’re not ready.

This question shouldn’t take too long; either you’re able to start on something now or you’re not. Either you have the time or you don’t. Don’t overthink it.

Does it Support my mission? (1 minute)
I set a big-picture vision for myself and refine it every year or so. Every quarter or so, I choose missions that help me bring that vision into reality.

This question is key; it’s key that it’s asking about my current mission, not my big, overall life vision. There are too many possibilities that would fit into a big vision. There aren’t as many possibilities that will fit into my current mission.

It takes less than a minute to answer this question, because I set very specific missions and define them clearly. Do the same for your current projects or goals, then ask this final question before you give anything an absolute yes.

How to Use This Standard

I think it’s pretty clear from the example above, but here’s a quick breakdown:

  1. If you haven’t already, define your big-picture vision, your main work, your life trajectory. This is worth thinking about. This is your life.
  2. Set your current mission (project, habit, goal, theme) for a defined period of time. I like to work a quarter (3 months) at a time. That’s long enough to do something satisfying and significant, but short enough to see progress and completion before I get tired of the project. I get bored easily, though, so set a time period that works for you.
  3. Write your current mission somewhere you can easily see it.
  4. Write these three questions somewhere you can easily see them. (Next to your current mission is a good idea.)
  5. Refer to these questions whenever a new possibility (invitation, opportunity, idea, project, greater-than-2-minute task) comes your way.
  6. Be honest in your answers; if you cheat on the answers, the questions are worthless. You have to trust yourself if you’re going to trust your system.
  7. Say No to every possibility that isn’t an absolute Yes. Be as consistent as possible, but don’t beat yourself up. If you forget and jump into something, oh well. No need to waste time on regret.

Remember: Yes to each question= absolute Yes= it’s important

What About the Time Cost?

This may seem like too much work and time. If it takes 5+ minutes to answer these three questions about every possibility, how much time will this process take?

Well, it will take some time. That’s true. But I’ve decided the time is well-spent.

Here’s why I stick to this three-question process:

  • The more I use this approach, the faster I get with it. (5+ minutes becomes less-than 5 minutes becomes around 2 minutes.)
  • The more I ask these questions, the more I tune into my instincts, my gut feel on stuff. I’m better at knowing whether something is a true Yes (with joy!) or an obligatory Yes or a No disguised as a Yes or fear being afraid to miss an opportunity or my ego screaming Yes because it wants to feel important and busy and recognized. This may sound silly, but it’s weird how often we don’t actually know what we want. Being able to hear my own gut response, my true Yes (or No), and honor it is a pretty big deal.
  • For every 5 minutes I spend with this three-question process, I’m probably saving an hour of agonizing indecision, self-doubt, regret, and uncertainty. When I make a decision to take on some task or project without this process, I can’t trust that it truly matters to me and is the best use of my time and energy. When I take 5 minutes to qualify something as Important with these three questions, I trust that it’s a good choice for me.
  • I no longer take on projects or tasks I’m not actually equipped to do… which means fewer undone commitments, which means less mental clutter and much less guilt about unfinished business. That’s a psychic burden I’m glad to be rid of.
  • I feel more secure about saying No to stuff. I know I’ve thought about it. I know I’m not just reacting.
  • I actually make progress on my current mission(s) and that feels amazing.
  • I’m not sabotaging my own success by taking on stuff that distracts me from the projects I’ve already started and really want to complete. I’m giving myself permission to say No to things that take away from my current focus, which means my energy is directed and I make progress, which produces its own serendipitous energy and means I have more fun doing the things I’ve chosen to do.

Those benefits are well worth the 5 minutes it takes to ask and honestly answer three questions about each possibility. The result is a calendar and task list that are filled with things that get an absolute, unequivocal Yes from me: truly important things that I am excited, equipped, and ready to do, that keep me on my chosen trajectory, that help me see real progress on a regular basis.

I hope this method helps you too! I would love to hear your comments if you use this method (or want to try), or if you’re doing something similar.

  • I don’t spend 5 minutes deciding if a 2-minute task is important. I just do it. Also, regularly repeating tasks that are necessary for life (e.g. laundry, grocery shopping) and things that matter for relationships (e.g., calling my Dad) don’t need this treatment.

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