In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan attempted to solve our nation’s drug problem by encouraging kids to “Just Say No” if they were offered drugs.
According to my research performed while watching popular television shows like Burn Notice, CSI:Miami, Law & Order, and Spongebob Squarepants, it appears that people are still saying yes to drugs.
However, I’ve had more success managing my own personal task list with Nancy’s timeless catchphrase. A friend of mine was asking me how I found the time to do so many things, and I answered, “I just say no.” I started rattling off the things I’ve said no to – just this week alone – and I realized it’d make an interesting blog post, so here goes.
In one week, I’ve said no to:
- Other departments – in a company of over 3,000 employees, there’s always somebody who needs SQL Server help.
- Mentoring more people – I get a huge feeling of satisfaction by helping people grow their careers, and I’d love to help everybody, but at some point I’ve gotta draw a line and work on my own career.
- Writing book chapters – a friend’s writing a book, and I’d love to help by contributing material.
- Consulting clients – every now and then, somebody asks me to help their company optimize their SQL Server infrastructure. I love helping, especially when I’m getting paid for it, but all work and no play makes Brent a dull guy.
- Traveling to see family – in theory, I could fly to Mom or Grandma & Grandpa’s place, stay with them for a week, work on my laptop during the day, and spend quality time with them after work. In reality, it doesn’t work out well. I get too distracted, so I have to schedule this only when I’ve got a bare minimum of stuff going on.
- Helping foreign language bloggers – we’ve had requests from foreign-language bloggers who want to syndicate at SQLServerPedia, but they need an English-speaking editor to clean up their stuff. Coordinating those efforts takes time.
- Blogging for SQL University – Jorge Segarra’s SQL University series is a brilliant idea, and I’d love to contribute posts and info.
- Writing PASS Quiz Bowl questions – I was asked to write virtualization questions for the Quiz Bowl event. I passed this off to the PASS Virtualization Virtual Chapter members.
- Speaking at events – I’m on the road for 5 of the next 8 weeks. In order to be a good partner for Erika, I have to be here at least half of the time. (At least!)
- Getting Microsoft certifications – if I’m going to make a run for the MCM, I have to pass the prerequisite tests, and I have to study for those. I definitely wanna do it.
- Side ventures – I’ve got a dozen ideas for things I want to build, like the Pheathr thing I’ve had half-baked for months now.
- Podcasting – I’m supposed to be cranking out 2 podcasts a week at SQLServerPedia, and I’ve got no shortage of topic ideas. Just a shortage of time.
The longer your career plays out, the more people will ask you for help. You can either say yes and get frustrated because there’s not enough time, or learn to say no. The key to knowing when to say yes and when to say no is having a perfectly organized task list.
How I Organize My Tasks
I use RememberTheMilk.com because it’s web-based, plus accessible over my iPhone. I divide my tasks into groups, which show up as different tabs in RTM. (The task list goes on WAY longer than this screenshot, trust me.)
When I first started using RTM, I just had task groups for Work, Personal, and Blog, but I’ve since really expanded ‘em out:
- Blog – topics I want to blog about. I could start draft entries in WordPress for these, but I’ve got several dozen entries in here, and I like to keep WordPress clean.
- Book – writing & editing work for my books.
- Budget – long-term things I want to buy.
- Dream Home – not tasks, but RTM is so gosh-darned efficient that I use it to keep notes on things. I mentioned my Dream Home task list in my blog post about What I Want vs What I Can Afford.
- Indie Label – tasks for my side consulting company clients.
- PASS VVC – the PASS Virtualization Virtual Chapter.
- Personal – things I need to do for Erika, my family, or my friends.
- Work Development – I work in the marketing department, but when folks in other departments like dev ask me to do stuff, it goes into here.
- Work Marketing – my 8am-5pm task list.
- Work SSP Ideas – long-term things I’d like to add to SQLServerPedia.
- Recurring – tasks that RTM automatically regenerates. For example, I owe my boss a status report every Monday morning, but I don’t want that to clutter up my to-do list, because I only do it on a specific day. Another example – get a haircut. I never go into my Recurring list to see what I need to do, because RTM just sends me reminders when these tasks are due.
- Shopping – stuff I need to pick up when I’m out and around. Whenever I find myself out shopping, I double-check this list to see if there’s anything else I need to grab at that same store.
- Training – things I’d like to learn. I try to dedicate a set amount of time per month to keeping my skills up-to-date.
- Wines – like the Dream Home group, this isn’t really a to-do list. Although it kind of is – I must drink more of these tasty beverages. I’m horrible at remembering wine vintages that I liked, so whenever I’m at a restaurant I can add to or check this list.
I can grant other people (like my boss) access to specific groups, like Work Development or Work Marketing, without them seeing all of my personal tasks. That way, when we’re working together to prioritize my work, we can both see the same list of tasks.
I can’t say enough good things about RememberTheMilk.com and the Getting Things Done productivity philosophy. The book is subtitled “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”, and it really delivers what it says on the label.
Managing Incoming Work Requests
When someone asks me to do something, I ask what the deadline is. I use that deadline to decide right away whether I’ll be able to deliver the task on time, keeping in mind the other stuff that’s already in my RTM task list.
If the task doesn’t have a deadline, then I make it clear to the requester that they’re in the list, and they can contact me anytime to request an update on what’s ahead of them in priorities. However, the onus is on them – not me – to manage the task deadline. If the task suddenly becomes urgent, they don’t get a shortcut to the top of my task list just because the task suddenly has a new deadline. They still have to compete with everything else.
If the task has a deadline I can’t meet, then I say no. Nothing personal – I just point to the list of tasks I have to do. Since every single one of my to-dos is documented in RTM, I can instantly say, “I’d love to do ____, but unfortunately I’ve got ___, ____, and ___ on my plate already, and those will keep me busy past your deadline.” If the requester demands a higher priority – and it happens all the time – I export the list of higher-priority tasks from RTM, email it to them and my manager, and ask for them to work together to sort out the priorities. I truly don’t care what I work on first – I’ll be busy until the day I retire – so I just want to do what my manager needs first.
If the task has a deadline and I believe I can meet it, then I take ownership of the status updates. I agree to meet the deadline, and I give them regular updates on whether I’m meeting that goal.
This simple process lets me deliver on time – but it also means breaking a lot of hearts by saying no.
You can either break hearts at the beginning by saying no, or break hearts later by not making your deadlines. People will only forgive you for one of those two options.
Update: It’s About Your Learning Plan, Too
Steve Jobs once offered advice to Mark Parker, the President & CEO of Nike at the time. Mark tells the story:
“Nike makes some of the best products in the world, products that you lust after, absolutely beautiful, stunning products. But you also make a lot of crap. Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff.”
You have to edit. There’s a million interesting tasks in your company, and a million interesting things you’d love to learn. You’re not going to be able to do them all. Focus is about saying no to a million things, and saying yes to only as many as you can really execute beautifully.