Voice Over - Maybe No Requires a Garbage Can

I can not tell you how tempting it is to write several more weeks of organisational culture topics, but I think we’ll set that aside to marinate for a while. I’ve already received several outstanding and provocative responses. Join the club and send me an email on your thoughts about organisational culture and how to change it.

Instead, I’d like to revisit an old favourite, Just Say No.

I’m triggered a bit by a New York Times editorial by Tim Herrera. In particular, I got stuck on the quote: “If an opportunity inspires genuine excitement in you — whether it’s at work, in your personal life or anywhere else — then dive in 100 percent and don’t look back. But if that spark isn’t there, even if you’re pretty excited about it, it’s a no. The binary here is a little dramatic, sure, but the lesson is crucial: If you don’t love it, don’t do it.” And when I say stuck on this quote, I really want you to imagine a bicycle toodling happily down a street when suddenly the front mud spatter protector slides out of alignment, abruptly stops the front wheel and projects the hapless rider into a cactus patch by the side of the road. I’ve been picking prickles out of my brain ever since I first ran into it.

I wonder if we can practice saying no in little ways that gradually strengthen us to say no in the face of major impositions. I think I would start by saying no to all the non-sparkly crap that litters my home life.  For example, we could say no to things that used to be exciting but now bore us; They are the stubs of hobbies and passions but which no longer have any emotional power. Time for me to sell the flute, round-file the bike, and stop the Battle.net subscription. I need to unsubscribe to about 3 dozen podcasts, delete roughly 200 bookmarks from Chrome, and get rid of all the arts and crafts materials. We are barely scratching the surface of the many things I need to dump, and I’m already forced to re-evaluate my smug dismissal of the decluttering fad. If you find it hard to say no to people, say no instead to things that get in the way, take up space, gather dust, or make you feel vaguely guilty when you look at them.

We could then transition to the at home to do list. This is merely a physical (or online) manifestation of our obligations to ourselves and others. It is the actions we promised someone we could take. In Getting Things Done, there is a standing principle that during annual reviews, you should delete all tasks that have sat in your trusted to-do system for more than a year. These are aspirational tasks, and if you are honest with yourself, you aren’t going to do them. Maybe someday you will but if the motivation returns to learn how to play the flute, there are flute sellers. It is not helpful to see it in the to do list and instead generates a niggling obligation to say “No, not today” each and every time you glance at it. I have a feeling there will be a cascade effect here as decisions to slash out of the to do list will ripple into the physical world with another wave of closet purging. Pretty sure there are bags of quilting material under my bed that just got the hatchet if anyone wants them.

Now I have a few items on my to do list that are arguably aspirational, but against which I actually am making progress. It’s super slow, but it is happening. Be realistic though. Are you actually making any progress? If you care – if you truly felt that spark of genuine excitement – you would already be actively attempting to make that dream a reality. The advantage of this No is that it clears the space in your mind and your life for the things that are genuine and that you can progress. No to learning Chinese. No to a sewing a quilt for the guest bedroom. No in particular to all those ‘you should do this…’ ideas from well meaning people. No to writing a book about cruising. No to becoming a vlogger. No no no NO. Go away.

Now. What’s left in my personal life list? I want to go to Europe. I want to stay in Europe so long I wear out several pairs of trainers, lose 10kg, and forget how to spell. I want to finish the god damn house. I don’t mean 95%, Dean Michael Conger… I mean every single frickin’ half finished room is done and the rest are CLEAN. And that’s it. Europe and a clean house. Simple.

After practicing on the personal life, we turn our attention to our work life. Again, I think I’d start with the physical. Clean the desk, go through all your drawers, delete all the kruft in the 100s of folders on your network drive. Just clean it up. Then tackle that to do list and scratch out absolutely every task older than a quarter. Why 3 months instead of a year? Well, have you worked in corporate life recently… Nobody remembers 4 months ago, including you. Throw away old notebooks. Get rid of the books you never read and the handouts stacked in the corner. Look at every obligation and responsibility and meeting and ask yourself whether or not it meets the Do It Binary Test:

Bucket 1: Does it pay the mortgage?
(e.g. Do I have to do it because it is literally my job description?)


Bucket 2: Does this fire me up and make me lose track of time
because I love working on it so much?

If it isn’t either, get rid of it. Like… immediately. Because everything that isn’t either required to pay the rent or something you passionately love is going drain your soul, reduce your effectiveness, and waste your time. It’s also not your job. See definition above, because I know some of you have pulled out “yeah but…” and you know how I feel about that. Bucket 1 or Bucket 2 or start figuring out how to get rid of it.

I believe what Tim is saying is that we should structure our work lives entirely into Bucket 2. Guessing, I’d say he’s young, single and without spawn. We accrue obligations as we mature that make it more reasonable to assume that there is a balance between paying the rent and playing the strings of the soul. There’s a place for tasks in Bucket 1 that at first you do because you have to but which migrate eventually into Bucket 2. But I think the real power move is to find a way to blend the Venn diagram of MUST and CAN’T STOP into a single oval. Nobody dreams as a teenager to grow up and become a Change Lead. For me, it has been a bumbling, half-accidental journey always gravitating towards roles that pulled these two circles together until the dreary obligation bit of my work is so swamped by the cool and shiny, I hardly notice it.

What I can wholeheartedly endorse is that when we tip the balance too much towards the mortgage, we lose who we are, why we are, and what we are. Apply everything you can towards weighting the scales towards life and joy and your passions. Don’t just accept the status quo because it’s familiar. If this means changing jobs, changing careers, changing cities, time to get cracking. You have work to do.

At minimum, clean your desk people. It’s Tidy Up Week.


“… yes, some of these decisions are made for us. We can’t exactly quit paying rent or a mortgage because we’re not super jazzed about it. But for the decisions that are under our control, declining is a powerful tool, and it’s one we shouldn’t feel shy about deploying.” ~ Tim Herrera