Early in my career, I was determined to be a “yes man” — the guy who accepted any project, no matter how full my plate.
Even after I started my own company, JotForm, I tried to wear every hat, from hiring to customer service. As a result, I had less time to spend working on the bigger picture issues — like growing the business.
Thirteen years later, I’ve learned many lessons about scaling a company. We host more than 12 million online forms and recently hit 4.5 million users. Reaching this point took some trial and error; and for my part, learning how to say no.
Because refusing low-stakes tasks freed me up to focus on my priorities — building an amazing team and continually adapting to our customers’ needs.
There’s an art to saying no. Explains Greg McKeown, author of the New York Times bestseller Essentialism:
“Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials.”
I’ve seen in my own experience, eliminating the non-essentials is a game-changer. That’s why it’s in your and your business’s best interest to figure out how to eliminate the non-essentials and choose your priorities.
But first, a closer look at why it’s so crucial to prioritize.
What are the benefits of choosing your priorities?
On a daily basis, prioritizing can increase your productivity. You’ve probably heard by now about the perils of multitasking — shifting between tasks can consume as much as 40 percent of your productive time.
To avoid task-shifting, I maintain three priorities at all times. Currently, they are:
- Hiring great people
- Creating quality content
- Helping users to work more productively
I delegate or eliminate any projects or opportunities that fall outside of that narrow scope.
According to economists and psychologists, having too many options can paralyze your momentum or even push you into making illogical decisions. Columbia University professor Sheena Iyengar and Stanford University professor Mark R. Lepper demonstrated this effect in an experiment conducted at an upscale grocery store. First, they set up a booth where customers could sample jams, then every few hours, they alternated between offering 24 jams and six jams.
The results were surprising.
Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the larger assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by to taste the smaller one. However, 30 percent of people who sampled from the small assortment bought jam, and only 3 percent of those faced with the larger assortment ended up purchasing a jar.
Professor Iyengar said, “people might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating.”
On an organizational level, excess priorities can negatively impact revenue growth. In a survey of 1,800 global executives, 64 percent reported having too many conflicting priorities. The same research found that as an executive team’s number of priorities increased, the company’s revenue growth declined relative to its peers.
Being selective can also help you build and define your brand. Take it from bestselling author and Food Network host Ina Garten: the epicurean entrepreneur, whose estimated net worth is upwards of $40 million, told a Forbes Women’s Summit that if an offer doesn’t align with Garten’s brand’s vision and values, she turns it down.
Saying no isn’t always easy, but it pays in dividends to be able to stick with your long-term vision.
So how do I prioritize?
It’s tempting to begin by knocking out the tasks that need to be done right away. In fact, research shows that people typically choose projects with very short deadlines, rather than tasks with less pressing deadlines — even if the latter promise a bigger reward.
But the most successful entrepreneurs have learned that urgent tasks can often be delegated and shouldn’t be prioritized based on time sensitivity alone. Instead, we should be thinking about the things that move the needle for us.
With my company, it took time before I learned to delegate urgent functions, like customer service. I used to set out fires all day long. But once I delegated this task, I could devote my attention to large-scale issues, like improving our product and developing new growth strategies.
To start prioritizing, take a step back and think about your goals and your company’s goals.
Specifically, ask yourself:
- What’s most important to me, considering my (or my organization’s) big-picture goals?
- Where can I make the most significant contribution, based on my organization’s needs and my skills and experience?
- What inspires me?
This last question may seem lofty, but I think it’s essential. Research shows that inspiration facilitates progress toward one’s goals. To put it another way, the more personally inspiring you find your goals, the more progress you will make toward them — and the more likely you are to attain them.
After answering these questions, use the Warren Buffett strategy and write down 25 of your goals. Then, circle your top three most important goals. Buffett would recommend choosing five, but I find that keeping as narrow a scope as possible works best for me.
Whether you circle three or five items, it’s critical that you ignore the remaining goals at all costs — not forever, but set them aside until they move up on the list and you can devote your attention to them entirely.
Looking back at my priorities, hiring great people has always been in my top three. Though I won’t delegate that responsibility right now, I can imagine a future where our growth causes my priorities to shift, and I’ll have to delegate hiring for most positions. That leads me to another important point. You must ruthlessly stick to your priorities, but you should also reevaluate them periodically. Like your career, your priorities should be dynamic and evolving as you go along.
Prioritize now, save time later.
It requires an initial investment of time, but by setting priorities, you’ll increase your productivity, and make headway on the goals that really matter to you and your business.
Rather than what’s urgent, focus on what’s important and personally meaningful, keeping in mind your unique skill set.
Finally, don’t feel bad when you have to say no. Because it’s not about doing more — it’s about doing more of the things that make an impact.