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Letting Go and Saying No

It’s a good time of year to take inventory. If you haven’t been bit by the spring cleaning bug yet, it’s certain to be nipping at you soon, which could include an inventory of your stuff. Most of us are knee-deep in tax preparation, which means taking inventory of our past year’s finances in a big, often unpleasant, way. The shift forward an hour on the clock might get you thinking about an inventory of your time commitments.

An inventory of how you spend your time is incredibly useful and it’s still early enough in the year to make some productive changes. By listing all of your commitments on paper, you can get a better idea of where you’re spending your time, what’s getting ignored and needs more focus, and what is completely expendable.

It’s tempting to hold on to all of our commitments, especially for those of us who tend to be hard on ourselves, but the benefits of letting go can be tremendous. First, the lifting of stress and tension will be palpable. Even simply letting yourself off the hook about having to read the newspaper every morning or get through the New Yorker every week can be a big relief. Dropping out of a book club when you realize you haven’t had time to read even one of the selections for the past six months can feel like a rebirth.

Obviously, there are commitments that you can’t drop or delegate. You will need to identify those first. They will be the “hardscape” in the garden of your schedule. Your job, certain family commitments, and the usual maintenance of life, like brushing your teeth, are examples of hardscape. Everything else represents the flowers and shrubs, and many of us are due for some severe pruning and dead-heading in those areas.

If making a living is one of your top priorities, take a look at all of the activities in your schedule that are not generating income. Yes, it is important to give back, but I know for myself that I pack on all kinds of volunteer commitments when work is slow that threaten to drown me when I get busier. That saying, “if you want to get something done give it to a busy person,” can send the busy person straight to the hospital with exhaustion.

That’s where saying no comes in. As soon as you feel stressed and overwhelmed, start saying no to new demands on your time. It’s much easier to say no to new commitments than it is to let go of old ones, just like it is easier to say no to a piece of chocolate cake than it is to lose weight.

You can also take a look at when certain commitments are ending, such as service on a board of directors, volunteer commitments, memberships and subscriptions. If you can’t walk away from those commitments immediately, promise yourself to do it when it comes up for renewal.

With regards to balance, I’ve had to learn to say no more often to the fun activities, too, like travel and trips to the city. Too much vacation or time on the road (when I should be working) is just as stressful, if not more so, than too many professional or volunteer commitments; not only am I losing income, but usually these activities cost a lot of money that I have to scramble to make up later. I’ve learned that balance feels better than scrambling, no matter how great the latest exhibit (and inevitable shopping) in San Francisco might be.

I love the saying, “How we spend our days is how we spend our years.” Many of us worry about wasting those days and so fill them by trying to do everything, please everybody and learn to play the piano and speak French, too. If this sounds familiar and you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, step back, take inventory, and get out the pruning shears.