By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Don’t you just love those “clean slate” moments in life?

I think back to my first day in a new town or at a new school. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any obligations. No one was waiting for me to work or play with them. I was really free.

And each time I learned how very rare and fleeting those moments are.

Clean slates don’t last

In just a few days I had cobbled together or fallen into a rudimentary web of relationships. People reached out to me, and for that I was grateful. But relationships come with expectations. Soon enough I had names to remember when I saw faces, acquaintances to greet and appointments to keep.

The longer I stayed in any one place, the more demanding my schedule got.

Before long my various To Do Lists included more things that I had any realistic hope of getting to. I was swamped. Overcommitted. I had to start prioritizing people and things. The choices were always tough, sometimes agonizing.

But when I didn’t do it, the agony just raised its ugly head in a different way: I let people down, broke promises, and undermined trust.

Why am I writing in the past tense? This process of trying to prioritize – to optimize – my limited time and energy goes on to this day. I suspect it will continue for as long as I draw breath.

But somewhere along the line I did learn an ironic fact of life: To be able to say yes, you have to be able to say no.

It’s a struggle

I still struggle with that, But I’m getting better. And I think Christine Carter’s advice in The Sweet Spot: How To Find Your Groove at Home and Work, is going to help me do better going forward. While I can’t do her entire chapter "Easing 'The Overwhelm'" justice here, I can outline her process, which comes down to: “Decide on your five top priorities and say ‘no’ to everything else.”

Dr. Carter also offers a process for how to get to that point: “Sit down every year and write a simple intention (or personal mission statement) to use as a litmus test or filter for all new tasks, projects and activities.”  Then pick your top five priorities and spend 95 percent of your time only on those activities.

Note, you don’t have to commit 100% to your five priorities – just 95 percent. So you still can blow five percent of your time on things that don’t really matter a lot to you but are fun.

And note, too, that having fun is a legitimate priority. God built us with the capacity to enjoy life. We shouldn’t waste it.

Dr. Carter is extra helpful because she shares the latest version of her own mission statement and the five priorities she identified to organize her life. I’m not there yet, but I’ve found her advice very helpful and practical.

Now it’s time to pray for perseverance. (If you want to pray for me too, thank you.)

More help

While we’re on the topic of saying no in order to say yes to what really matters in our personal and professional lives, let me recommend two additional sources:

  • In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey presents a simple grid of four classifications (see p. 151) that help us organize the many tasks that come our way. He also makes an important point: The problem is not time management, but “personal management.” Dr. Carter is saying that too.
  • More help about how to say no comes from John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at N2Growth, in a 2-minute video addressed especially to people who find that with growing work responsibilities come growing demands on our time. He says to put people time ahead of everything else.