Your Don’t Do List

EP 6

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How can we tap into the power of doing less? Simon explores our tendency to become overloaded and outlines a practical approach to setting and keeping clear boundaries. He explores why flexing our ‘saying no’ muscle is crucial for creating and holding space to engage in our most important work.


Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m already feeling like I’m on the wrong side of a lot of good work. And today I want to explore a really simple strategy that I think we need to model as leaders and share with our teams. And that is not only do we need to get really good at monitoring and updating and harnessing our to-do list, well, I think increasingly each of us as individuals and as teams need to start to develop a don’t do list. Too often I think we fall under the trap of thinking that the way out of a huge amount of demands and priorities and an overloaded and over scheduled calendar is to just put our head down and keep moving forward. But I think at some point, all of us probably get to the point where we start to think, why is it that I keep taking on other people’s key responsibilities and accountabilities?

Why is it that I’m always excessively apologising for not doing things that are outside of my core tasks and the core things that I actually really need to be focusing on? Am I overly managing other people’s impressions of me and am I making up somehow for my deep-seated imposter syndrome by always saying yes to things even though I’m saying yes to things that aren’t in my core wheelhouse or the things that I am on the hook to make sure I’m delivering in the improvement work that we’re collectively moving forward? I wonder how often you look at something on your schedule, a meeting, a call, a commitment you’ve made and think, that was definitely one of those things that I should have said no to. Well, if any of these things are ringing true for you, I want to encourage you to start thinking about building your saying no muscles and systems because if we are going to progress the core work that really is essential, we’re going to have to create space and even in a more difficult way, we’re going to have to hold that space.

If I think about the one lesson, maybe there’s lots. But the one lesson I think we were all meant to learn as educational leaders and as teams through COVID it’s this, resilient systems always keep spare margin. They never run at a hundred percent capacity when things are going well because it means when the unexpected emerges, there’s no spare margin to actually move into some of those areas that are needed. And I think as I look around education, everyone is busy again, not just busy they’re crazy busy, they’re extra crazy busy.
There is no room to think, there’s no room to strategize, barely any room to monitor and evaluate and to learn together. And so I think we need to come back to this idea of how do we make some clear decisions and set and sustain clear boundaries around, what is the core work? And when we do need to say no, how can we avoid blurry language? Avoid always feeling like we need to rationalise every element and justify with multiple dot points why at this stage you can’t do it. But then by the end of the email, you’re almost saying, “Actually that’s okay. I suppose if you really need, I will.”

I think for all of us, we need to build our capacity to hold and keep some space again. How could we get better at saying no? Well, one of the things is just to notice in our calendars times where we come out of something and we think that was not the right call to be directly involved in that meeting, in that call, in that project, in that interaction, I wasn’t really at my highest point of contribution, I wasn’t working on the essential things. And I think I was mostly there because I was, I suppose, trying to people please or I hadn’t really had the clarity to say no and well, I just ended up there.

The first thing is just to notice some of these things. And have a little note whether it’s a hard copy or a digital list where you’re just noting down and noticing things that you’re currently involved in where you think, actually this is not necessarily the best way for me to make a contribution. Now the second thing is I actually suggest people generate some templates, some simple language and keep them in a Google file or a Microsoft file somewhere where you can access on your computer with respectful but clear language around how you might say no or not at this point, to things that come in. If you’ve got these templates, you can always adjust them and make them more personal. But as part of a system, frankly, slowing up and saying, maybe I need to practise flexing my no muscle on this one.

Simple phrases like, “Thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity. Unfortunately, I’m at capacity right now and I need to say no on this occasion, but I hope it all goes really well and I appreciate your understanding at this stage.” Maybe you could just mention to someone via email or of course in text or phone or a meeting, “Thanks very much for the invitation to join that gathering or that meeting. Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend because I have another commitment at that time, but could you keep me updated with any action items that have been allocated to me? And feel free to send over any core notes you want to make sure I’m on top of.”

You can start to think about different ways of whether it’s a straight no and no involvement, whether it’s I can’t be there in person, but I’m open to taking on action items or keeping on top of things, or perhaps someone might ask you to meet up or have a phone call. And at that point, perhaps your no is a softer way of saying, “Thanks so much for reaching out. My schedule’s been a little bit crazy these days. And at this point, email’s probably the most convenient way for me able to respond to this. Perhaps you could outline X, Y, Z or make a few notes about what you were specifically hoping to talk about and I’ll come back to you when I get a moment during a quieter period.”
Again, putting up these boundaries creates space. It’s okay to say no to an inbound because you’ve kept some deep workspace or some strategy time or you want to be in classrooms or doing another high leverage piece of work. It’s okay to say you have a clash. It doesn’t mean it has to be another meeting. Maybe that request is actually clashing with a higher order piece of work you need to do.

How often have you been asked for something recently and you’ve basically just said, “It’s great to hear from you. Unfortunately, I’m not able to help on this occasion because of a prior commitment. I’m wishing you all the best and hope that we can connect again soon.” I think it’s really important to start to practise, whether it’s a meeting, a call, a request, or a project. Now of course, I’m not saying in our teams and in our broader networks, we shouldn’t be looking for opportunities to contribute and find ways in a generous spirit to help others move forward. But I think if you, like so many other leaders I’m coaching at the moment, are feeling as though that you’re right at the limit, it’s important to start to really give yourself licence to build up a don’t do list. And so as you notice where you probably shouldn’t have engaged to, as you develop your own language for a clear no, whether via email templates or just some simple phrases that you can practise and feel more confident in using. And then thirdly, keep a don’t do list.

Start to think about, wherever possible, some things that you don’t do. It might be simple things like, I don’t take meetings wherever possible before 10:00 AM on Monday. You think, oh, it’s a bit of a luxury. Well, you think about how you want to turn up and start, how you want to be physically engaged and fully switched on at the start of the week. Maybe there might be other things where you try to clear out certain time or ensure certain time isn’t taken back from you that’s crucial for the progressing of your work. In the end, no one is going to prioritise our life for us and we’re going to have to find opportunities to really work out what is essential now and start flexing our no muscles. Interestingly enough, the more that we do this with clarity and love and candour, I think the more that we actually build trust.

Because as we set clear boundaries, hold those clear boundaries and then with clarity and consistency, get after it and really deliver against the things that really create value in our role. And I think over time we create a set of relationships and ways of interacting with each other that are going to be more sustainable and allow us to really get in and make the contribution we’re trying to make. What would be on your don’t do list? How could you start to flex your no muscle? And how might you, with a close colleague, with your broader team, open up a conversation about how we can do less to achieve more and unlock the power of saying no.

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