A Reverse To-Do List

By Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraigDeathtoStock_Wired4

I read an interesting post recently by blogger Jessica Lawlor (@jesslaw)  “A Reverse To-Do List: Why What You Say NO to Matters More Than You Think.”  It was one of those post titles that made me want to learn more, since I still struggle with protecting my time.

I have gotten much better about protecting my time.  Last summer I mentioned that I had created a business manifesto and was measuring each opportunity against it…was the opportunity a true opportunity? Or was it a distraction from more important tasks?

I’ve done well since then. I’ve turned down a slew of things that I instinctively knew were going to either be time-sucks.  And I’ve said no to things I felt would somehow cost me money: in terms of time or actual cash outlay.  I’ve even been able to say no in person, which has always been hardest for me.

But the ‘nos’ have left me a bad taste in my mouth.  Was I passing up something good?  Limiting myself?  Or was I conserving energy and focus?

That’s why I was glad to run across Jessica’s article. As she states in the piece:

I’m keeping a running list of all of the things I’ve said no to so far this year. 

Jessica further explains:

The purpose for keeping this list or even sharing this list with you isn’t meant to say, “Look how great I am and look at all these cool opportunities I’ve said no to. No. Not at all.

Instead, the list is a constant reminder to myself that I always have a choice. WE always get to choose how we spend our time.

Because I’m usually not passing up something good.  I’m passing up something that’s pulling me away from either tasks that have proven successful (writing cozy mysteries) or a different task that I chose to work on or enjoy.

Some of the things I’ve rejected in the past few months:

  • Teaching a course
  • Reviewing books (I’m not a reviewer)
  • Blurbing/endorsing books (if I accepted every request, I’d be blurbing 4-5 books a month)
  • Speaking on a panel at a Virginia book festival
  • Beta testing software products/services for writers
  • Nonfiction opportunity from a university press

And personal things, too.  Requests for volunteering, for example.  I’m a volunteer, but the problem is that the same people tend to be tapped over and over again (and you volunteers out there know what I mean).

I’ve also accepted some things.  I’ve guest blogged, agreed to attend conferences, and just spoken at the Macon, GA Cherry Blossom festival.  I’ve come to see that it’s possibly even more important is that we say yes to some things.  Those would be things that give us an opportunity to grow, to stretch ourselves. Things that are actually opportunities that fit our business model/vision/philosophy/manifesto.

How do you feel about saying no?  When you’ve said no, do you feel relieved or conflicted?  How well do you protect your time?

A reverse to-do list for busy writers. Click To Tweet

Image: Death to the Stock Photo

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26 thoughts on “A Reverse To-Do List

  1. I sometimes feel guilty for about five minutes after saying no. Then I’m over it.
    Teaching a course sounds like it would consume a lot of time, so I can see why you said no.
    If anyone asks me to do anything else in April, it’s positively going to be a no!

  2. Oh what an excellent post! I never thought to keep a list of the offers I’ve declined but it’s interesting to see your examples.
    I love new opportunities and new outlets for using my skills, but I consider how much time it would take me to make something that would be good value for the audience – eg how long to create a good teaching experience, if indeed I’m right for it at all. I get quite a lot of requests to test-drive apps and software. Those are easier to decline as I don’t use apps in my day-to-day life and would not be an informed commentator.
    A writer friend who was just starting in online life made a pact with herself to accept absolutely every offer and suggestion for a year – and then evaluate what was worthwhile and what wasn’t. This is probably a good move because we don’t know what suits us until we try.
    I’m tweeting this post, Elizabeth – as I do with so many of your posts anyway!

    1. Roz–You know, I think I like your way of looking at it. Instead of feeling guilty about saying no, I could remind myself that maybe I’m not the *best* person for these various things, anyway (like you with the apps). I might not be the best blurber for a non-mystery series. I don’t have any worksheets or even any background in teaching, so would I really be the best candidate for a writing course? Very good point.

      I’ll be interested in hearing how your writer friend handles all her requests!

      Thanks for coming by, Roz, and for tweeting. And darn it, I forgot to put ‘click to tweet’ on there again! Will amend the post to add it.

  3. Elizabeth – This is such an important post. I think it really is important that we consciously decide how we’ll spend our time. As you say, you can’t agree to everything. There just isn’t time for that. Not if you want to focus on your writing. On the other hand, there are opportunities out there that will help us grow and be of real value. To those opportunities we should say, ‘yes.’ Sometimes it’s hard to judge, but I think in the end, learning to say, ‘no,’ in polite, even friendly, but firm ways is an important skill. Learning to say, ‘yes,’ when there’s a great opportunity that will help us is just as important.

    1. Margot–And the key word there is ‘conscious.’ So often I feel as if I’m reacting when I’m invited to do something. I need to be mindful about what I’m accepting and if it fits my business model/manifesto.

  4. Elizabeth, I hear ya on the volunteer “tapping”! It’s nice to be needed, and I know they need the help, but it can get crazy.

    I think having a business plan is really important. There are times when I feel as if I should be doing more promotion, but I have to remember my plan: to write as many books as I can in this early stage of my career. After I have more books out there (I only have three so far, and voracious series-readers can chew through that in a heartbeat), then I can shift the business plan to include more promo. Hope I’m making the right decision on that one!

    Good luck with your projects!

    1. Kathy–It can get crazy, for sure! And if we ever tell a school/charitable organization that we work from home…we’ve had it! We’re really on the list then.

      I think you’re good to focus on your writing. I do, actually, very little promo. In fact, I’m trying to think what I actually do! Newsletter when a book comes out. I respond to reader emails. Other than that, all my online stuff is for writers. I think the best thing we can do for visibility is to write more books. And then, possibly, to have one priced really low.

  5. Hi Elizabeth – great idea .. and I do say ‘no’ … having had my hip done has enabled me to say no and to say for the time being that’s not going to be an option to do that … I could easily do more and am sure I will do – but no for now won’t harm and will give me time to move forward with really important things in my life.

    Cheers – good thoughts here .. Hilary

    1. Hilary–Have you noticed that once you have a *very* good excuse to say no (and hope your hip continues improving) that it becomes easier with practice? I think I can say no better now that I’ve turned down so many things (and I have another on my list to turn down today…sigh).

  6. This is such an important topic. I once wrote an Op-Ed piece entitled “No is a Complete Sentence.” So many of us say yes for all the wrong reasons. Now, if I say no, I have carefully thought it through and made a conscious (key word here) choice. This past weekend I had a virus and was started to feel better and we had theater tickets for something i really wanted to see. But when I checked in with myself, the wisdom was to stay down one more day. I missed the play, but woke up the next day with much more energy. Great post!

    1. Karen–I like that title! I love that you’re focusing on the choice aspect here. Smart of you to give yourself more time to recover. So often I felt required to accept any invitation or any favor asked…professional or personal. We just won’t have the energy if we do.

  7. I find I say no to a lot, but mostly for the sake of my kids. Both my husband and I work, so if one of us won’t be available to watch the kids, I say no. Really, unless it occurs around 5 AM or is kid-oriented, I typically say no. I can’t quite bring myself to have someone else watch my kids for something trivial. That will hopefully change once their old enough to stay by themselves for a while.

    1. Loni–Oh, kids are an excellent excuse! Once they’re older, though, watch out. I think that’s when I really got on the volunteer roller coaster…when the schools figured out that I was at home and “available” (although I was writing).

  8. Well, Elizabeth, if I had the strength of my convictions, probably I wouldn’t have just read your post. Or be commenting on it now. But you, and a handful of other A-list bloggers have made saying No very difficult–so here I am.
    Sorry, though, to hear you won’t be blurbing books. I had designs on you!

  9. Churches call on you for many things. And you think you might be the only one who volunteers, so you take things you don’t do well. Cooking isn’t my biggest talent, but when someone was sick, I volunteered. It isn’t a huge church and the organizer had seven lovely dishes to take and mine. I wished I had left it for the experts.

    Maybe if we remember to only volunteer the gifts we really have, the list will shrink.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  10. I’m with Hilary–once you have a major, generally-accepted, indisputable reason to say No, it gets easier. In the past couple of years I have even said No enough times that my lifestyle itself has shifted, so that protecting my writing time is now my Prime Directive, and my family and most of my friends are (usually) on board.

    I also like Pat’s idea to only volunteer the gifts we really have–but in my case it would mean volunteering to write stuff, and I think my brain would implode if I did more writing than I’m doing now!!!

    1. Meg–I like that you’ve centered your life on writing!

      And…I’m a writing volunteer. :) I can’t tell you how many friends/acquaintances have gotten me to write complaint letters, letters to teachers/principals, important work docs…word gets out!

  11. A while back I joined the Derek Sivers movement: I only say “yes” to things where I can shout it loudly while jumping up and down on my desk.

    If the request doesn’t excite me to that point, I don’t have time for it. Also, as you mention elsewhere, I’m not the right person for it. When I ask others for help, I don’t want grudging compliance, I want joyous enthusiastic support.

    So if that’s not what I’m going to give, I’ll leave the slot for someone who can, and use my time for things that make me scream yes yes yes oh yes.

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