“That’s not important” and “No, thank you” are two phrases that I find particularly challenging to say. Perhaps you know the feeling; a friend or family member asks you to assist with something and the task suddenly takes on extreme and looming dimensions in your mind. Put into the context of everyday life, the task itself is not important and does not need to be done right away. But you rush to finish it, and do a good job, to fulfill the unstated and assumed expectations of the friend or family member.
Devoting yourself to these small, external tasks can waste your time and energy in a never-ending cycle of acquiescence. Over the years, I’ve taken on odd jobs like dog walking, house sitting, raking leaves, or shoveling to help out, make some extra cash, or be active in my spare time. I regarded these tasks as ‘fun’ because they generally took me away from school work and allowed me to get outside and be physically active. However, I’ve noticed that I tend to obsess over each task. It’s not just a quick job – it’s a devoted and rigorous effort that forms my self-identity.
It recently clicked in my mind that investing all of my energy into these tasks is reducing the amount of productive time that I have to spend on other long-term and more meaningful tasks, like learning a new language, playing a musical instrument, or practicing origami. Rather than building up a solid foundation of personal skills, I’m burning up my energy running on an endless treadmill of intangible tasks that leaves me with only disillusionment and tired feet at the end of the day.
What keeps me heading back to this metaphorical treadmill is the expectations of others. I tend to think “If I don’t help out with this chore, I won’t get a reference from person X!” or “S/he won’t like me anymore if I don’t rake these leaves!”. In reality, I have a solid history of interactions with that person and they won’t reject me outright if I use that dreaded and powerful word, “no”.
Knowing when and how to effectively use the word “no” can be a particular challenge if you don’t have your own personal priorities set. To help with this situation I’ve created a tool that I call the “List of Little Significance”. This list sets out each task which is insignificant in my long-term development as a person; these tasks should be completed quickly and efficiently to avoid their time-draining potential. I also try not to invest anxious feelings or mental energy into these tasks, and divide them into separate ‘realms’ (personal to-do items and external pressures). For example, list items might include:
Under “Personal – Unimportant Tasks”:
- Grocery shopping
Under “External – Unimportant Tasks”:
- House sitting
- Dog walking
In the opposing list, I identify some longer-term tasks which might be desirable to start working on in my spare time (e.g. learn to rock climb). I have put the “List of Little Significance” over my work space, however, so that it’s always visually in front of me to remind me when something is not important and should either be refused outright or not consume much of my time or energy.
Working through the guilt of downplaying these insignificant tasks is challenging, but manageable, and I encourage you to try accomplishing more personally fulfilling tasks today! (See this FastCompany article for the how-to on avoiding guilt).