Committing to Less

“Yes” is a dangerous word. It sounds polite and helpful on the surface, and in many instances it is. But it can also lead one down the road to over-commitment and exhaustion.

It’s difficult to say “no” once you’re expected to say “yes” to every request, no matter how insignificant it may seem at the time.

Over the past few years and especially since we started a family, life has become more complex to the point where it’s difficult to keep track of responsibilities, commitments and schedules for six people. Kim and I discuss our coming week’s schedule on Sunday evening. And yet by Monday night I’m asking, “Now, what do we have going on tomorrow?”

This past year something changed.

Kim picking blueberries in Auburn, WA

In an attempt to gain a modicum of control of my schedule and maintain my sanity, I began turning down requests for my time. This has not been an easy adjustment. I seldom remember my father saying no. He’d run from one assignment to the next. I have friends that are able to function with this level of chaos. I’m not one of them.

There are times when I feel bad saying no, but it’s better to be upfront and deal with a little discomfort than partially commit. That’s what I used to do. I’d say, “I’ll try to make it” and when I didn’t, it was a bigger disappointment than had I said no from the start.

This past year I’ve said no to some travel for work. I’ve taken on fewer projects at work and church. I’ve turned down opportunities to meet up with friends. We even cancelled our summer vacation to Utah because we felt overwhelmed at the time. We needed some time to catch our breath. So we picked blueberries and spent time doing absolutely nothing at the beach.

But I’d like to believe there’s much to gain by saying no and committing to less. For example, by committing to fewer projects at work, I’m able to give my full attention to the two or three projects that will provide the most value to my team. Picking a couple of projects forces me to weed out all the clutter and really focus on projects that will drive results. It’s actually much easier to complete a bunch of crap projects than one that’s difficult yet comes with a large payoff.

That reminds me of the first time I went through the review process at Microsoft. My manager had left the company so the job of reviewing our group fell to the VP over Office. I’d spent the past six months planning one event and was certain he’d dock me for not completing more tasks. But he surprised me when he said, “Your manager’s job is to overwhelm you with projects. Your job is to figure out the one or maybe two that must get done and ignore the rest.”

I’m not saying it’s a particularly smart move to ignore projects that come from your boss. But you can explain why completing fewer but more critical projects beats finishing a dozen of dubious value.

Committing to less allows me to carve out time with my spouse and children. That results in life balance that’s difficult to obtain when you say yes to everyone. Look for a manager who values results instead of sheer number of hours spent behind a desk. I’ll take the employee who spent two hours writing a script to manage the backups over the one who spends four hours each weekend doing it by hand. Find a manager who appreciates the first type of employee, because that’s probably you.

I still struggle finding that balance. But I’m able to recognize when I’ve let the pendulum swing out too far in one direction. Sometimes there’s very little I can do about it. But I know it’s there and I’m always striving for it.

3 thoughts on “Committing to Less

  1. It’s funny you should post this now. I’ve made a conscious effort to find more balance in life. When my wife was spending extra time at school as a school teacher, somebody reminded her, “they’re not going to name a school after you.”


  2. After years of doing what I thought was the “responsible” thing, recently I was treated at work like Typhoid Mary for coming in with a cough. I stayed home the one day I had a fever, but then knowing the cough would last until spring (because that’s what I do), I came in. I had deadlines galore for three weeks. The fourth week (the week after Thanksgiving), it was slow in the office. Suddenly, the attorney began to complain to HR that I was “contagious.” Funny how they weren’t concerned when I was working on their deadlines. After all these years, I’ve finally decided that if I sneeze, I’m staying home. Sometimes you can bust your behind and it gets you nowhere.


  3. I need to learn to say NO more at work.
    Believe it or not, we can occasionally do that. Just don’t take ownership enough I guess.

    Cheers to a good reminder on this topic.

    Need reinforced until we actually ‘get it’.



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