Saying “yes” to our priorities usually requires learning to say “no”

 IMG_1365Having time to do what is important—that is, devoting energy to high-leverage activities—often means minimizing or eliminating other activities that do not serve the values and goals of the school community.

That’s why “getting to yes” regarding our priorities sometimes requires saying “no” to colleagues, friends, and even family members.

Indiscriminately saying yes to everything means some important things will not get done or will be done in a less than adequate or satisfying way.

Skillful leadership means engaging the school community in the determination of priorities and in maintaining an unwavering focus on the achievement of those goals.

It is essential that such a focus begin with principals and teacher leaders.

To that end:

Post a prominent reminder of your top three priorities (more than three may mean that you have none because you can’t give adequate attention to any of them).

Tell yourself that your disciplined focus will serve as a model for the school community. Others are far more likely to imitate what you do than what you say.

Saying “no” is difficult for those of us who think effective leaders always say “yes.” In addition, many of us have a strong desire to please others, which can make it difficult to decline requests.

But saying yes too often comes at a cost to ourselves, which, ultimately, comes at a cost to those we serve.

While reflexively saying yes may be a well-established habit, it can be changed, one “small action” at a time. For instance:

• Set a goal to say no to at least one request a day (or even a week), starting with those requests whose refusal seems less risky.

• Anticipate situations in which you are likely to be asked to do something that you know will be a distraction from an important priority and that will create stress for you and others. Rehearse what you will say. Anticipate the anxiety that may arise and consider practicing a brief relaxation technique like focusing on your breathing for a moment or two before the conversation.

Devoting time to the things that matter most requires eliminating activities that distract us from those priorities. Learning to say “no” may be the critical skill that enables us to work with a laser-like focus on those areas in which our attention matters the most.

2 Responses to “Saying “yes” to our priorities usually requires learning to say “no””


  1. 1 Glenda Eoyang March 18, 2013 at 7:13 am

    Thanks for this, Dennis. Very relevant message for me these days and reminds me that a mindfulness practice should be among my top three.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks March 18, 2013 at 7:17 am

      Yes… And a mindfulness practice is a good way of slowing down to be discerning about what we want to say “yes” to.


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