For years, I’ve been driven by the idea that I need to say yes to every opportunity.
At the end of the day, if my life fell apart, I wanted to be able to say that I did everything I possibly could to prevent that from happening. I never wanted to be accused of laziness or inaction. I never wanted to fail because I said no to an opportunity.
It didn’t work out well. I ended up spinning a web that ultimately needed to be unwound. It damaged relationships from unfulfilled, partially fulfilled, or weakly fulfilled commitments. It ultimately cost me more than it benefited me.
I tried to squeeze so much into my day that I found myself spread to thin, energy levels low, stress levels high and ultimately ended up burning out.
This was all driven by a scarcity mentality and fear. If I don’t take this opportunity, there may not be another one on the other side. If I don’t say yes, I’m saying no, and I’m going to miss out on something.
Maybe you’ve felt or currently feel the same way.
Are you overwhelmed, over committed and stressed because you cannot meet everyone’s expectations, including your own?
Last year, I started getting out of the maximization mentality and began to simplify in all areas of my life. I started saying no more and eliminating things that were unproductive. I focused on the small number of things that were producing the greatest benefit.
By committing to less, I’ve been able to go deeper. My quality of work has increased. I’m less stressed. I’m not over committed. I now fill in the gaps with meaningful work and activities.
Simplifying my life has made all the difference for me, and it may for you as well. Here are the steps I took last year and will continue this year:
Defined My Top Priorities
The first step in simplifying was defining priorities. Without knowing my priorities, it was easy to say yes to anything and everything that looked remotely close to a good idea.
I would start working early and schedule time in the afternoon for working out. Suddenly, when 5 pm rolled around, grabbing a happy hour drink sounded much more enticing! By making exercise a top priority, I moved it to the morning and rarely miss a work out now.
I found myself at the end of the day with tasks checked off my list but didn’t have a sense of fulfillment. I realized I pushed the things I really cared about to the back burner for the sake of feeling productive. At the end of each day, I was physically and mentally tire and easily justify not doing important things like exercise or writing.
Defining priorities caused me to move the things I really cared about and wanted to accomplish to the beginning of the day instead of the end. I better defined the projects I was willing to accept and characteristics of clients that I worked will with (and therefore was able to get better results with much less stress).
Decide the three to five activities you value the most, the things that will bring you a sense of fulfillment at the end of the day, commit to them, and put them on your schedule.
I started looking at the activities, projects, and clients that were taking up time and energy with the least benefit. Over time, I began to prune and eliminate these activities, project, and clients.
It isn’t always easy to prune because it means you may be giving up something with a little value to open time for something of greater value that may not be there yet. I found that when I started pruning and opened space, activities, projects, and clients of greater value started filling that space.
I also discovered a tremendous amount of free time available when I eliminated time sucks. It was shocking how much time some of these things were taking up and adding little to no value.
It became clear that they were costing me time and money. Looking back, pruning was tough but absolutely the right thing to do.
Where can you prune to free up time and mental space to contribute to your top priorities?
Said No (A Lot)
It’s easy to take on more than we can handle or say yes to a project or client even though it’s not a good fit because the money is there.
I said yes to things I could do but would have to find time and energy for it. I said yes to things that I was capable of doing but not in a position to do at that time.
As I started saying yes to everything, my days and my mind become disjointed, cluttered and unorganized. I found myself constantly switching gears between activities and projects.
I wasn’t able to put my time and attention into certain obligations that fell to the wayside and ended up becoming obligations instead of assets.
After setting my top priorities and pruning back the things that were taking up time, it became easier to identify the activities, projects and clients to which I needed to say no.
If something doesn’t match my priorities or fit my ideal project or client, I will say no. Like pruning, it’s not easy to say no to an opportunity, or to a person you really like, but it’s crucial to leave yourself space to work on your priorities.
To what do you need to start saying no?
Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries
It’s easy to say yes in order to make people happy, especially for natural people pleasers like me. Once you start saying yes, things can get out of hand quickly and stress can start piling up.It’s critical to create boundaries on our time.
For a long time, I made myself available nearly all the time to meet expectations of clients. Phone calls, text messages, and emails were coming at all times on all days. I set the expectation that I was able to answer the phone or respond quickly to a message. It was terrible.
Because of this, I often found myself getting run over and I felt taken advantage. It wasn’t anyone’s fault but my own. I created the wrong expectations and I had to learn to clearly set appropriate expectations and continue to clarify these expectations and boundaries with people and projects.
Now, I outline as specifically as possible what I’m going to do, the amount of time I anticipate spending, when I am and am not available, and the best ways and times to reach me. When things start creeping outside the lines, I am able to go back to a written outline and agreement. If something is not specifically addressed, we address it then and add it to the outline. I make sure to add it to the scope next time.
Over time, I’ve been able to clarify and become much more specific in expectations and boundaries and it’s led to better results, happier clients, and a happier me.
In what areas of your life do you need to redefine or set clear expectations and boundaries?
Turned Off Notifications
My phone became a total distraction device. I received notifications of every Facebook reaction, comment, page like for over thirty pages that I managed. I received notifications from ESPN and MLB with sports scores. I received notifications of emails, text messages, and incoming calls. There are probably twenty more notifications I could list.
Because of this, I used to check my phone constantly. Everything buzzed the same and I didn’t know if it was something that was important or not. In reality, very little of it was important, I just liked the distraction. I feared missing out, and felt both important and busy.
I turned off all notification on my phone except text messages, but I rarely check these. I now only check my phone when I’m schedule to check my email (more on that below).
You would be amazed out how much distraction is eliminated, the amount of time you free up, and how little you will miss by turning off notifications.
Scheduled Time for Checking and Responding to Email, Voicemail, Text Messages and Notifications
We love feeling busy and productive, and checking email and other messages is a big part of this feeling in today’s world. But, many times, they are just a distraction from real work.
When we check emails, texts, and messages, we get a little hit of dopamine. Over time, it’s easily to become addicted to checking because we unknowingly love this very small high.
After realizing that I was really addicted to checking, I started scheduling time for checking emails, voicemails, text messages, and any other notifications that were important. It was extremely stressful at first. I constantly felt like I was missing out on something.
I never missed anything important and I’ve only had a couple of people ask me why I haven’t responded to their email within the hour. They got pruned. I started getting more and better work done and my stress levels dropped as well as the fear of missing out.
There was also an unintended consequence. As I started checking my email less, and therefore responding less, I started seeing a drop in the total number of emails in my inbox each day. As I was checking and responding to emails frequently, I was inviting people to treat email as a form of instant messenger and set an expectation that I would respond quickly.
Also, if you set a schedule to respond in the evening, I recommend scheduling your emails to go out the next morning or at another time during the day. Again, this helps to set expectations that you are not available at all times. Check and respond on your schedule, but don’t create expectations of your availability.
Our ego may say otherwise, but we are not that important that we are needed immediately all the time. Generally, the world is not going to fall apart if we go three hours between the time we check emails. Give it a shot. See what happens.
Took Email Off My Phone
Once I took notifications off my phone, I started checking my email more on my phone because I wasn’t getting notifications each time I received an email and wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The urge to take a quick peek was extremely strong and I was anxious about not checking email frequently.
I moved to checking email only on my computer and only on a schedule as discussed above. It’s reduced distraction and the number of emails I process daily.
Also, I really didn’t like responding to emails on my phone. So, when I would check them, I would sometimes have that email on my mind for hours before I could respond. It took up a lot of mental space and wasn’t productive.
If you can, take email off your phone.
Put More Thought In My Email Responses
By checking email on a schedule and only on my computer, I was able to send more thoughtful responses.
When checking and responding frequently, emails that were coming and going were short and lacked details and clarity. By sending fewer emails, and being much more clear, detailed, and thoughtful in my responses, I invited much better responses. Better responses equal a decrease in the number of emails needed to get a point across.
I think we should treat emails more like handwritten letters than Twitter messages. If you had to send a letter, and expected a response by letter, you would make sure your letter was clear, contained all information that you need to convey, and would make sure you requested the exact response you needed. This process could take days or weeks.
You could not afford to send, or receive, the train of thought rambling emails we send and receive today.
I also found I was receiving a lot of short emails that ended with the question, “Thoughts?” or What do you think?” I received one today!
These are unfair questions that take a minute to write and a novel to answer appropriately. I still answered them, but every time I did, I got another email with another question. By answering the questions, I invited more similar questions and they were driving me crazy.
Now, rather than answer these questions via email, I let them know that this is best answered on a schedule phone call and save the questions for that call. It substantially reduced the number of email questions I received in a day.
Unsubscribed Like Crazy
As I batched processed email, I started seeing which emails I deleted every time. I started unsubscribing from as many lists as possible. For those that I still wanted to see, I used the tool at Unroll.me to send my emails into a daily digest that is emailed to me once daily.
I can now check my daily digest when I want to see what emails I wanted to read.
It saved a ton of time and I receive a fifth of the emails that I used to receive.
Rather than taking every call that comes my way, I now request that we schedule calls. This way, I could start batching calls during the day and leave the rest of the time available for doing work. It also avoids constantly playing phone tag.
If I got a voicemail, I typically respond, if appropriate, with an email to schedule a time to talk.
Like with email, I found that scheduling calls significantly reduced the number of calls I received. I also prefer to send out an agenda for the call when appropriate to stay on task. A prepared, organized, scheduled call can easily cut the time you spend on the phone in half while being just as, if not more, productive.
How much time could you free up in your day if batched your calls and cut your call time in half?
Reduced Text Messaging
Text messages got out of control for me. I was receiving many text messages all throughout the day. Now, I receive very few text messages and only from my wife, family, and friends.
Texts, especially for business purposes, are a poor form of communication in my opinion. Most of the time, they are misspelled, rambling, train of thought messages that are unclear. The worst is when they are a question that requires a long, detailed response that is beyond the scope of a phone keyboard.
I also disliked the intention to interrupt represented by text messages are meant to be an interruption. The thought is that you didn’t respond to my email, but I assume you always have your phone on you and are always available, so I’ll send you a text message to interrupt whatever you are doing. I especially hated getting texts letting me know that somebody just sent me an email and asked if I received it or requested that I immediately review it.
For me, another major downside to text message is the lack of ability to send an auto responder message. If I’m unavailable, I’m not going to respond, and it seems like I’m ignoring somebody. When an email is sent or phone call is made, you can at least leave an autoresponder or voice mail that sets the expectation that you are unavailable.
To eliminate text messages on my phone, I took my cell phone number and switched it over to a Google Voice number that I then used for business purposes. Any text messages show up now in my email account and I can respond when I check my email, just like an email. I also request, for the most part, that we communicate via email so I can save and store messages in a folder.
I then obtained a new, private, personal cell phone number that only a handful of people have.
Reducing the number of text messages, especially for business purposes, has increased productivity, removed distraction, and created channels for much clearer communication.
Fasted From Traditional and Social Media Fast
I have never been a frequent consumer of traditional news. Occasionally, I would turn on the news or read news sites to see what was happening locally or check the weather.
Most of the news I read came from social media, which is basically an outlet many times for articles and other news to be posted. It became worse than watching the news on television or reading the newspaper. I would end up in a black hole of articles and news sites. Checking Facebook would end up in thirty minutes to an hour of distraction in reading posts and watching videos.
Not only was it a huge distraction and provided very little value, it produced negativity and anxiety.
Instead of checking Facebook now, I use Flipboard and subscribe to the types of blogs and sites that I want to read. I can quickly read articles or save them to Pocket to read later.
It has saved a ton of time, improved my mood, and kept me from falling into the black hole of distraction.
Spent Time Alone and Took a Personal Retreat
As an introvert, spending time alone is recharging for me. For the two-thirds of you that are extroverted, solitude can be extremely uncomfortable. But, with practice and over time, when we slow down we see more clearly what’s going on inside. For all of us, introverts and extroverts alike, solitude is scary because we aren’t sure what we will find on the other side of distraction.
Anxieties, fears, and desires start to surface when they aren’t constantly being drowned by noise or stuffed inward with activity. As they surface, you can begin to listen to what’s going on, process them, and start to deal with them.
In April of 2016, I took a personal retreat to the desert of Utah. It was one of the most powerful things I’ve done for myself.
I went for about a week and spent several days completely alone backpacking through Canyonlands National Park.
It was physically and mentally grueling and exhausting, yet extremely beautiful. It was the quietest and emptiest place I have ever been. I sat looking at sunsets in the quite forced to face and work through some internal junk. I faced boredom and loneliness. I cried. I came out of the experience much stronger, detoxed from so many negative thoughts that were holding me back. I realized how we are constantly stimulated and how damaging this can be. I found gratitude and saw the value of simplicity.
It’s not easy to get away by yourself for even several days, but if you can do it, it can be life changing.
If you can, schedule a personal solitude retreat. If you can’t go for days, regularly spend time alone for an hour or two each week. It will at the same time be one of the worst and most beautiful experiences of your life. You never know what you’re going to find on the other side of the noise, but that’s the whole point.
Established a Daily Routine
I used to love, or at least thought I loved, variety and novelty. The newer the better, lest I get bored. I was so wrong.
For the past few years, I didn’t have much of a morning routine. My morning routine was wake up, grab coffee, maybe grab something to eat, and start working. In 2015, I started with a morning routine for several months after reading “The Miracle Morning” by Hal Elrod and saw amazing benefits. Then, I got away from it and went back to old bad habits.
When I was in a morning routine, I felt like I accomplished the most important things in the morning, freeing myself to move through the rest of my day. When I was out of a morning routine, I felt more stress and less clarity.
Last year, I decided to start back with my morning routine.
Here’s my general morning routine now: wake up at 5:30 am, grab water and go straight to the gym or workout outside depending on the weather, come back home and meditate with centering prayer for about 10 to 15 minutes, then grab coffee and a light breakfast before writing three pages of “morning pages” as recommended by Julia Cameron in the Artist’s Way After that, I write at least 500 words and read if there’s a little bit of time left before I need to get ready for work.
Usually, this routine takes me about an hour and a half to two hours. I could shorten the time if needed, but this provides a solid foundation for my day.
In building this routine, I’ve identified the routines and habits as the most important things for my personal growth in any given day.
It’s an incredible feeling to have them done before starting work and before commitments and expectations start flooding in. It opens me up to spend the rest of my day working without the distracting thoughts of what I need to do or guilt for what I haven’t done that day.
There are good formulas out there for starting a morning routine, but what’s important is to identify your most important three to five things in your day and do them before you start work. It will change your life.
I started looking at expenses that I could cut out and areas where I could quit spending.
If there was something I wanted, instead of buying it, I would put it on a wish list. Over time, I would narrow down the things I really wanted or needed and ended up buying much less. I realized that i didn’t need as much as what I was used to buying.
Over the last two years, my wife and paid down all of our debt except a mortgage on our home, which is next on the list. I haven’t had a credit card in over five years now and I haven’t missed it.
Not having debt, coupled with spending less, allowed us to save more and contribute substantially more to retirement funds this year than we have in the past.
It’s a great feeling when you can set that money aside for later instead of for a more expensive one when our paid of vehicles run just fine, even if each is more than ten years old.
I am the type of person who is unsatisfied. I may or may not have heard that more than once when I was a child…thanks mom. There could always be more money. Something could always be a little better. I could have performed better. Things could be different if I made a better decision.
I would compare what I had to what others have, or appear to have and realized that I didn’t have the bigger house or newer car.
It’s brutal to live that way.
Living a simplified life is tough. Could I afford the new car? Yes. Could we sell our current house and buy a bigger one? Yes. But, at what cost? I would have to go into debt or burn through cash for something that I ultimately don’t need.
I learned that more is not the definition of enough. Figure out what’s enough for you and let’s stop mindlessly consuming, accumulating, and keeping up with the Joneses.
Meditation helped me to reduce emotional decision making, declutter my mind, identify and change thought patterns, and lower stress levels
There’s no right or wrong way to mediate. There is a right way for you and I recommend that you try several different methods to see what fits.
As we quiet or ego, we gain new perspective. We identify thoughts and thought patterns that occupy mental space and hold us back. We can start to release negative thoughts and introduce new thoughts. As we quiet ourselves, we open up to ideas and answers that were previously blocked out.
I am really good at getting wrapped up in my own little world and with my own problems. By quieting my mind, I am able to get off mental hamster wheel and find a different or larger perspective on whatever challenge I’m facing. I’m able to gain clarity where I was previously cloudy.
On the rare days now when I don’t meditate, I can tell a huge difference in my mood and distraction levels. Give meditation a try for a week or so and see what happens.
I walked. A lot. Sometimes alone, sometimes with my wife. Walking alone could be a form of meditation. Sometimes I would walk and listen to podcasts.
While walking, I’d often get answers to questions I was searching for out of the blue. I’d take a small pocket journal and write notes and jot down thoughts.
Walking has become incredible therapeutic. When done regularly, walking can be an incredible stress reliever and give you space to think.
I’m not sure that I was ever a multi-tasker where I would try to do multiple things at the same time, but I would switch between tasks frequently. I would have a thought and, instead of writing it down, I would jump over to something different and leave whatever I was working on behind.
Now, if a thought pops in my head while I’m working, I jot it down and go back to it later. I focus on a single task at a time until that task is completed. If it’s a long task, I’ll schedule breaks, but I try not to let the breaks get me too off topic.
Kept a Day of Rest
In our 24/7 world, taking a full day off with no phone, email, or work seems ridiculous.
It may be hard for us to accept, but the world doesn’t fall apart when we take a break. We were designed to take breaks.
Take a day to switch of your phone and computer and enjoy some downtime without work. It’s incredible the difference in can make in your mindset and stress levels.
This is just a list of what I’ve done. Not everything here is right for you. What are a few things from this list that struck a nerve and you can start implementing? What are other things you can do to simplify your life? Make a list and get started today.