No-vember: How to say no to things that don’t serve your purpose

Originally published in the Globe & Mail November 23, 2020

As if workers were not stretched enough, the added stresses brought about by the pandemic and social unrest, coupled with the precarity of employment because of business closings and layoffs, are causing many to reach a breaking point.

This year, more than ever, it has been critical for organizations to prioritize what matters, so that workers can focus their relatively depleted energy on things that drive the most value. But we also must take accountability for our own well-being, which includes simplifying our lives by saying “no” to things that do not serve us.

Once again, this November, Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, highlights 30 productivity drains you can start saying “no” to, perfect timing before the holiday rush adds to our stress. Here are some of my favourites:

  1. Working non-stop: It is so easy to send just one more e-mail from the comfort of our beds. But studies are showing that many workers are working more since the pandemic started. Practising rituals that force us to “shut off” is critical for our well-being and our long-term productivity. Bringing me to the next “no.”
  2. Going straight from work to home, or home to work, without a transition between roles: While many of us appreciate the time saved by not commuting, working where we live and living where we work means that our personal and professional roles are bleeding into one another more than ever. Simple rituals such as meditation, getting dressed and not looking at our phones right before we go to bed (and right after we wake up) signal to our brains that we are transitioning from one role to another.
  3. The torrent of communication: As many of us are using a plethora of communication channels (text, e-mail, collaboration platform chats and threads, and social media platforms, to name a few), in absence of good old face-to-face options, it is easy for important information to fall through the cracks. Instead, try directing your communication into one primary channel to decrease the likelihood of missing that critical message.
  4. Fretting over things you can’t control: Obsessing over things that are not in our control is not only unproductive, but also self-destructive. With so much seemingly out of our control these days, it is difficult to avoid feeling helpless and giving in to our anxieties. But focusing on opportunities in the things we can control is a way to stay positive and productive for now, and to set us up to emerge from the crisis stronger than before.
  5. Meeting invitations when the meetings aren’t set up for success: Since we don’t have serendipitous hallway conversations to stay connected and updated, we are seeing our calendars swarmed with meetings. Before setting up or accepting that next meeting, make sure that it has an objective and outcome, and that the right people are included. Also, pressure-test whether a different or more efficient communication channel would be better suited. This would create space for the next “no.”
  6. Overburdened calendar: Best-selling author Dan Pontefract reminds us that Kawhi Leonard played just 60 of the 92 regular-season games the year the Toronto Raptors won the championship, partly so he could preserve his energy and prevent further injury. Similarly, we need to balance our loads for ourselves and for our teams for optimal performance, which includes creating adequate space for thinking and rejuvenating.
  7. Reinventing the wheel: A great way to regain control over the seemingly endless stream of to-dos is to look for ways to reduce, reuse and recycle. Sometimes amplifying (but not stealing) someone else’s work, or taking a new spin on something you’ve already produced, can be more effective and efficient than always starting from scratch.
  8. Agreeing to disagree: Diversity of thought is critical to creative problem-solving. However, once a decision is made, it is important for teams to align to one path forward without passive aggressive “agree to disagree” behaviour. Otherwise, hidden agendas emerge and team productivity is sacrificed.
  9. Your untrustworthy narrator: As Ms. Davey suggests, “Your narrator often does a terrible job of presenting the true story.” Since we are relying much more on written communication (and two-dimensional meeting screens), it is easy to misinterpret others’ intentions. Instead, assume positive intent and address misunderstandings head-on and in a timely manner, so as to not let things fester.
  10. Screens: Those of us with children constantly ruminate about how much screen time is too much. However, this worry is not just for younger people – we as adults are also becoming addicted to our screens. To counter this, schedule daily or weekly time to be screen-free and go for a walking conference call, listen to a podcast or brainstorm with a pen and paper.