I say no to new opportunities at least 10 times each day. Hundreds of time each day, if I count every time I say no to buying the extra iPhone accessory the sales guy is pushing my way or say no to the guy on the street corner who asks me to spare fifty cents.

I am terrible at saying no, so each time I have to muster up the energy to say it, and each time there’s a lingering dread – should I have actually said yes? The pain is even greater when it’s something I would actually love to say yes to, but I’ve reached my limits of time or money – like when I have to say no to an invitation out with friends because I’ve got another commitment that I can’t get out of.

Moving to San Francisco, I’ve had to quadruple the amount of times I say no. I moved here because there’s so much cool stuff to do, but there’s SO MUCH cool stuff to do. It’s impossible to do it all. In Durango, most of the time it WAS possible to do it all, if you were willing to do a bit of party hopping or show up to a meeting 20 minutes late. In San Francisco, the sheer volume of activities and the travel time to get from one activity to another make it impossible to do everything I would love to do.

Increasing My “NO” Capacity

I’ve been struggling to increase my capacity to say no, especially because my life is already overflowing with projects and activities. I have two jobs, which combined could take up 26 to 60 hours of my time each week. I also participate in the Anne Braden program which is a minimum of 15 hours per week, with cool extra opportunities each week which could involve an additional 2 to 20 hours easily. So I’m at 41 to 80 hours of activities, before we even talk about all the tasks associated with moving to a new place, connecting with old and new friends, writing this blog, and all those basic self care activities which I find so easy to neglect. It’s all great opportunities, but it’s a lot.

A couple weeks ago, I had two different people ask me how I manage to juggle all my competing responsibilities. From their perspectives, I do it well and they wanted more insight on how they could apply it to their own lives. I’m always better at giving advice to others, and then realizing it all applies directly to me and what I most need. So this is what I discovered I needed myself in the process of thinking through advice to others. Hopefully some piece will be helpful to you too!

Know What Your Big Rocks Are

While I have used a lot of different time management tools over the years, my current problem is less a time management problem and more a problem with setting clear priorities. One of my favorite books in setting clear priorities is one of the time management standards – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I always cringe a bit in recommending this to others, because the author, Stephen Covey, has been accused of deceptively repackaging religious ideas into business language as a way to spread Mormon ideas to the general public. I don’t want to be a part of that, and at the same time I’ve found some of his metaphors and tools to be extraordinarily helpful to me.

My most well-worn chapter is for Habit 3 – Put First Things First. You may know the analogy of filling a glass with rocks – if you put a pile of pebbles in first, there’s no way you can get any big rocks in later. But if you put the big rocks in first, the pebbles will easily sift down between the crevices to fill in the remaining space.

Get Out of Crisis Mode

Covey also talks a lot about prioritizing the important but not urgent tasks. Especially in my work at a rape crisis center, I could have spent all day every day simply responding to the crises that came my way. Yet when I worked like that, I never had the time for strategic planning, building relationships, community organizing, and self care. And even work that I could anticipate – grant reports that were due or a press release that needed to get out for an upcoming event – these became last minute emergencies that got done right on deadline or were delivered with apologies for being late (again). I was always in crisis mode, and I never had time to do important work that would make a long term difference in ending sexual violence.

I got fed up with this mode of working. We deal with ENOUGH real crisis in our work. The shit that doesn’t have to be a crisis should be organized and produced with ease.

Who Are You Going to Be This Week?

So, how do we work differently? The most effective tool I use is weekly planning, with a clear set of goals for the week. I often don’t know day to day what I’m actually going to work on, but when I have a pocket of time, I have a clear list of what to work on.

Yet this list must be manageable – if my list is “Write a novel” and “Raise $30,000” – I’m probably not going to reach those goals all in one week. Most time management tools will tell you to break these down into smaller goals, but what size is right? It’s hard to know.

Covey switches the planning from task-based to role-based. A person can only manage about 7 roles in your whole life at any given time. Usually my job is more than one role as I’m juggling fundraising, marketing, organization development, and production.Yet, I also have personal roles that are important to me – like being a good friend, getting my new house set up, organizing a social justice project.

For me this week, my 7 roles might be:
– Person who just moved to a new place
– Data analyst
– Anti-racist training participant
– Fundraising & development planner
– Bookkeeper
– New roommate
– Friend

Each of those roles might have 2-3 important goals to achieve this week, and I can kind of map out when those things might get done during the week and still have a lot of space in my week to deal with whatever else comes up. The container of having a maximum of 7 roles forces me to be very selective about what’s most important to get done and then clarifies that the rest is over capacity and needs to be pushed off to next week, delegated, or cut back. Next week my roles might look totally different, or some of the same and some new ones.

Know What You Want to Say YES To

It’s hugely helpful to me to have to define the most important roles in my life and have that drive what I do, rather than try to randomly cut tasks from my to do list. I’ve seen this work tangibly for me when purging out old stuff. When I look at a previously treasured item and ask, “Do I want this or not?” the answer is usually “yes! I want this! It’s been important to me!” But when I change the problem to, “I get one box of treasured items – what are the most important ones to keep?” it seems effortless to send off to Goodwill a lot of things that I no longer treasure that deeply, so that someone else can enjoy them.

Seeing my most important roles clearly each week helps me see what I’m saying YES to when I’m saying NO to other activities. It makes saying no much easier because my own limits are much clearer and visible to me. It also helps me say yes to new opportunities that come up that fit with my top roles for the week. So I may not have any social activities planned at the beginning of my week, but I know that it’s something I will need and want. By including it as a role, I leave space to fill in fun social activities to meet that need.

Getting ready for a lot more “NO” in my life … so I can have plenty of space for all that I want to say “YES” to.