I often think of it as my one and only “superpower:” my ability to say “no” to what I don’t want.
I can’t always get paid to do the work I want to do. I’ve crushed on many people who haven’t returned my romantic wishes. I’ve fallen short of large numbers of creative, personal, and business goals I’ve tried to accomplish.
But I’ve rarely been forced to endure any of the relationships, experiences, or obligations I hoped to avoid.
In simple terms, I can’t always get what I want, but I have pretty much always sidestepped the vast majority of activities, tasks, projects, and goals I don’t want. And that has worked out very well for me.
I’m pretty sure it will work out well for you, too.
Here are some guidelines on how I do it:
Look Out for What’s Coming
In sports, there are big differences between “head up” and “head down.”
Head up implies that your eyes are alert, looking around, understanding what’s going on and searching out favorable opportunities. In fact, when a potentially dangerous object is flying toward someone, in sports or anywhere else, we often shout “heads up” as a warning to be alert.
Head down implies that you are focused on your immediate surroundings, often with a specific task in mind, and single-mindedly working on that task to the exclusion of all else. With your head down, you see only what’s in front of you, and you’re vulnerable to pitfalls and other surprises coming at you from outside your range of attention.
Many people mistakenly believe keeping their head down will help them avoid what they don’t want. It’s the old, foolish idea: “if I don’t see you, you don’t see me.” But this kind of intentional ignorance of your situation actually leaves you at the mercy of external forces – and the people wielding those forces.
To avoid more of the activities, tasks, projects, and goals you don’t want, you need to keep your head up. You want to regularly scan the horizon and get early looks at everything headed your way, giving yourself more time to work out the best way to avoid whatever you don’t want to engage with.
Know What You Don’t Want
Based on your desires, your abilities, and your experiences, it’s fairly easy to compile a comprehensive list of activities, tasks, projects, and goals you don’t want.
Sometimes, you don’t want it because you’ve been there and done that – and you didn’t like it. Other times, you’ve learned from third-party accounts or simple analysis you’d prefer to avoid it.
- Catching a terrible disease,
- Suffering an expensive loss,
- Putting your future in the hands of an unreliable person who doesn’t have your best interests at heart,
No thanks. You don’t want any of that.
It’s fairly simple to compile such a list, and once you know them, avoiding them is even simpler. Just…
Be Firm About Saying “No”
Saying “no” is probably the hardest part of avoiding the worst to help achieve the best.
A big reason is that many of us have been brought up to please others, to avoid confrontation, to put our own desires in second or even third place, and generally to comply with what others ask or demand.
That’s not going to get it done.
Being firm about saying “no” to the activities, tasks, projects, and goals you don’t want often requires putting yourself first.
You don’t have to be rude, mean, or obnoxious about it. You don’t have to hurt others’ feelings or make enemies. You just have to open your mouth and say “no.” (The mechanics of saying “no” are beyond the scope of this discussion. But they’re readily available to anyone who wants to search for them.)
The trick is to stick to your guns.
I was once at a multi-level marketing meeting where dozens of people wanted me to invest. I had to say “no” more than 100 times (by actual count) to get out of there with my net-worth intact.
Fortunately, in most work and life situations you can avoid the activities, tasks, projects, and goals you don’t want by saying “no” fewer than half-a-dozen times.
Bonus Section: Reduce the Guilty Feelings
I’ve learned not to feel guilty most times I say “no” to activities, tasks, projects, and goals I don’t want. But a great many others do.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce feelings of guilt from saying “no.” They include:
- Saying “no” as kindly as you can.
- Also saying “thank you” for being asked.
- Providing a brief explanation for your refusal. These explanations don’t even need to make sense, such as: “I can’t drive you to the airport because today is my ‘no wheels’ day.”
- Suggesting an alternative or a variation you can accept.
- Suggesting another resource that might be more available than you.
There are at least two big advantages to avoiding what you don’t want:
- You sidestep the pain, the indignity, the negativity you’d otherwise experience.
- You leave more room in your work and your life for the activities, opportunities, tasks, projects, and goals you do want. Some of these will find you by themselves; others you will have to go and get. Either way, you won’t be wasting time and energy on anything you’d rather avoid.
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