“When you arrive at a certain level it’s very easy to say
yes: That is the moment to learn to say no
– Jose Carreras

I’ve never met a challenge I wasn’t tempted to tackle. I seem to have this perpetual need to prove myself that, frankly, sometimes borders on dysfunctional.

In my effort to get ahead, to grow my business, to resolve issues in my personal life – whatever it is that drives me at the moment – I take on too much. Which is a recipe for failure every single time.

Now, I’m all about failure as a means to learn valuable lessons and as the occasional (and natural) outcome of taking healthy risks. But making the same mistake over and over leads to the worst kind of failures – those that have nothing to impart but remorse.

In an effort to wrestle back control of my schedule and my priorities, I made a few significant decisions … and I’m feeling pretty good about them right now. I canceled two trips – one last weekend to a wedding in California and one next week to a conference in Washington, D.C. With the time I’ve cleared, I’m catching up on overdue projects, getting a handle on my spiraling personal life, and getting my feet back on the ground.

I’m finally learning that – sometimes – you have to say “Enough is enough.”

When you become overloaded – whether it’s with work or emotional demands or time commitments – you have to force yourself to take a step back and re-evaluate. Does it make sense to split yourself up in so many directions? When you water down your focus by taking on too many things at one time, you risk making the #1 mistake that can undermine your success: You try to do so many things, you don’t end up doing any of them as well as you could.

Here’s another tricky thing that I hate to admit – but try it on for size and see what you think …

Doing too much also provides a ready excuse for why you didn’t do your best on something. So if you fail at attaining a particular goal, you can say, “Well, there was so much going on … I just couldn’t do it.” But as my daughter’s music teacher always tells her, “Don’t give me excuses, give me results.”

He’s absolutely right. And if I want my eight-year-old to learn that lesson, I’d better start modeling it myself. So here are my strategies for plugging up my overflowing dam of personal and professional commitments – and regaining some perspective on my goals. If you’re prone to taking on more than you can reasonably handle, I hope you’ll join me.

Strategy #1: Balance Optimism With Reality

A good friend once remarked that if a glass had even a drop of water left in it, I would claim it was half-full – and it’s pretty much true. I confess to being the ultimate optimist.

But if you can’t temper optimism with reality, your odds of achieving those big goals decrease substantially. These days, I’m forcing myself to slow down my enthusiastic responses by first taking an extra look at my calendar, running a spreadsheet on my cash flow, talking over my decisions with trusted advisers – and then deciding if my optimism is warranted by the facts.

Strategy #2: Do What You Say You’re Going to Do

This is a biggie – and it lies at the core of a character trait that I value highly: personal integrity. Every time you say you’re going to do something and you don’t follow through, you lose a little integrity. It’s an awful feeling … for all parties involved.

It’s time to draw a line in the sand and start fresh. Right now. First, clean up all the dangling promises you have not yet fulfilled. If you can’t get them done quickly, at least communicate a new deadline or commitment that you can meet. Communication is an important placeholder to maintain your integrity with a friend or colleague until you can produce the desired results.

This includes promises you’ve made to yourself, too, by the way. Were you going to order a copy of Michael Masterson’s new book Automatic Wealth for Grads…and Anyone Else Just Starting Out as a gift for your favorite niece or nephew … but just haven’t gotten around to it? Did you mean to start brainstorming some new marketing ideas for your company … last month? Has the home-study program to learn Spanish that you started in January fallen by the wayside?

Resolve to always do what you say you’ll do … and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Which brings me to my final – and for some of us the most challenging – strategy …

Strategy #3: Say “No” When You Must

Ah … saying “no” can be the hardest thing to do if you’re someone who enjoys pleasing other people. But the effects of saying “yes” when we should be saying “no” can be disastrous. (Trust me, I have a brief, failed marriage in my past to back up this assertion.)

We get a lot of positive attention when we say we’ll do something – which makes it easier to say “yes” than to say “no.” But the result of not following through on your “yes” means that, ultimately, you’ll be asked less and less … and thought of less and less favorably by others. Not a good recipe for building the kind of professional reputation that leads to a six-figure career.

And on a personal level, of course, the consequences can be even worse. Leaving disappointed friends and family members in our wake is tough – especially when we can avoid doing it simply by keeping our word.

You’ll be surprised to discover that an honest “no” is much better than a dishonest “yes.” You’ll garner well-deserved respect rather than lose business, fall out of favor with your colleagues, and, worst of all, create a rift between yourself and the people you love.

I’m posting these three strategies right next to my computer, where I can see them every day. And if I do nothing else this month, I intend to hold fast to them.

[Ed. Note: Monica Day is one of AWAI’s most impressive success stories. She is a freelance copywriter and the co-editor of the free online newsletter The Copy Protege http://copyprotege.com/blog/the-copy-protege/, where this essay first appeared.]
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