The Simple Hack That Helped Me Learn To Say No

How I went from overwhelmed to focused with one simple tweak

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Laptop and notebook on table
Photo by Chang Duong on Unsplash

I used to be one of those people with sticky notes all over my desk and computer monitor. “Sign the kids up for camp,” “get quotes for the kitchen renovation,” “create a draft outline for the new project at work” – these would all go on sticky notes and find a place somewhere in my workspace. 

Each time I wrote a task on a sticky note, I had the best of intentions. Each was an important task at the time of creation, and I would definitely get it done. However, as each sticky note languished on my desk, the motivation wore off and turned into dread.

Some sticky notes had single to-do items on them. Others had numbered lists. The most important ones would have stars next to them or be parked front and center on my computer monitor so I couldn’t miss them. I’d then cross out the items as I finally got around to them. And if I lost a sticky note? Well, tough luck. Hopefully, it wasn’t that important anyway.

Soon enough, there were sticky notes going up the sides of my laptop and computer monitor and threatening to eat my desk alive. The neon sticky notes were crowding not only my physical space, but my mental space as well, and they were constant reminders that I was getting buried under a mountain of to-do’s, yet I had no time to do any of them. 

These days, if you walk into my home office, you won’t see a single to-do item on a sticky note anywhere. These days, I use sticky notes for brainstorming and for capturing inspirational quotes, not to create endless to-do lists. When I see a sticky note in my office now, it lifts me up, rather than drags me down.

What led to this dramatic change? One simple little tweak.

Before, I was taking on more and more tasks without factoring in the time it would take to do them. I’d simply say yes, then add it to another sticky note and find a spot for it on my desk. However, along the way, I realized the value of my time, and I realized that each task takes a set amount of time to complete.

Thus, instead of writing tasks on a sticky note, I started to schedule them into my calendar. “Sign the kids up for camp” would get its own 30-minute slot on my calendar. And, because it’s not a pressing task, I might schedule it for a few days out. On the flip side, something like creating a draft outline for a new work project might have a more urgent deadline, so I could block off a morning work session in the next day or so to get that done.

Scheduling each task into my calendar ensures that every task gets its fair share of my time, and it also decreases the risk of me losing track of a task. If my day changes and I’m not able to get to a certain task, I simply move it to another open slot on my calendar later in the week.

By scheduling into my calendar each of my to-do’s, I can now visualize my workload, rest assured that each task will get done in due time, and more easily say no to lower priority tasks or requests. When I see that my entire day is blocked off for high priority tasks, it’s much easier to turn down unnecessary meetings or explain to others that I won’t be able to get to their requests until later.

This simple little hack has completely transformed my productivity and has helped me to declutter both my mind and my workspace. Now, I can see at a glance on my calendar all the tasks I need to get done each day. I choose purposefully when to take on bigger projects and when to tackle minor tasks. Best of all, when I’m working on a particular task, I can remain laser-focused on that task, without having to worry about all the other items on my to-do list.

So goodbye, sticky notes. Thanks for your help, but I’ve decided to take back control of my day.

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