I have a bad habit: saying yes. Sometimes I agree to do things—volunteer my time, write stuff, make food—and later regret it. When Brené Brown talks about setting boundaries, she uses this mantra: “Choose discomfort over resentment.” Wow. I love that! And I need it—especially if I plan to complete National Novel Writing Month this year!
Here’s the thing: I like saying yes. I like it when people approve of me. As you have probably noticed, the people who are asking you to do something LOVE it when you say yes. But we cannot say yes to everything everyone wants us to do and still show up for our writing.
We need to find a way to say yes to our writing and say no to the activities that tend to get in the way of writing. It’s been more than ten years since I first read about the absolute yes list in Cheryl Richardson’s book, Take Time For Your Life. Since then, I have used this tool to help me set and keep priorities.
An absolute yes list is simply a list of the five things in your life that you will always say yes to. My list is: self, family, friends, writing, and coaching work. For each of these items, I’ve made a list of the activities that tend to nourish me—like exercise, reading, seeing plays with friends, and writing books. When someone asks me to do something, I mentally check the list. If the task is not on the list, I usually choose not to do it.
Writers, if you are planning to do National Novel Writing Month, you need to make your list right now. If you are not doing NaNoWriMo, think about creating this list anyway. It will help you keep your priorities and write more.
So how does it work? Ask yourself: What five things are most important to me? List them. Under each item, add a few sentences to describe what you mean by “writing” or “family.” It is helpful to be specific here. For example, while family is definitely on my list, and part of that includes helping out at my children’s schools, I am clear that I want to help in ways that allow me to use my strengths. That means I rarely do administrative tasks but usually do teach a writing class or two a year.
Once you have made the list, orient your days around it. Eliminate the things that do not fit your plan. National Novel Writing Month is great because it gives you an excuse to take a month off from some of your regular activities. At the end of the month, you can decide whether or not you want to keep these commitments.
Why this works. Over the years, I have collected some thoughts and ideas about why an absolute yes list is a must. I cannot tell you where these come from or who said them first. I can tell you that these ideas have helped me to stick to my absolute yes list more often than not.
*How you live today is how you live your life.
*When you say YES to that which matters least, you are saying NO to what matters most. When you say yes to tiny tasks like constantly tweeting, you are saying no to being a writer.
*The things that matter most must never be at the mercy of the things that matter least. A simple example: the telemarketers calling you or texting you should never be more important than your work.
*What matters most to others might not matter most to you.
The absolute yes list is a simple tool to help you say no to the activities that distract you from writing. When you are asked to facilitate the neighborhood block party or join a new dinner club—you will look at your list and ask, “Is this event or task on my absolute yes list?” If not, you say no. No guilt. No angst. Not even an explanation. Just say no.