To do important work, start by making invisible commitments.

By Ayse Birsel

If you’re finding it hard to make time for work that is important, you’re not alone. Recently I talked with Dorie Clark, the author of Stand Out, and Amy Edmondson, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School and author of The Fearless Organization, both of whom talked about the challenge of saying no in the short term for important work to emerge in the long term. 

It can be hard to say no to opportunities that are currently in front of you in order to make time for what Edmondson calls the “invisible commitments,” which are things in the future that are not real yet. 

“What’s hard is to recognize the invisible commitments one should make to thinking, reflecting, creating, investing in learning and growth toward something more important, rather than lots of little things,” she said.

Amy Edmondson on invisible commitments.Ayse Birsel

You know how easy and often wonderful it is to find yourself in demand. It’s nice when people you’ve always wanted to work with ask for your time, you’re invited to give keynotes, social media beckons for your attention constantly, and email is a constant.

Clark says it’s easy to say yes to these things because they are right in front of you and you know what they are. The conundrum is to push away a tangible opportunity in the short term to make time for something that is not yet real but has the potential to become important in the long term. The trick is “saying no to more things and pruning obligations to open space for things that are less defined and not quite real yet.”

Dorie Clark on pruning obligations.Ayse Birsel

This reminds me of what Steve Jobs advised Nike CEO Mark Parker: “Just get rid of the crappy stuff and focus on the good stuff. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Even though Jobs meant it in the context of designing products, it’s a great analogy for thinking about our work.

So, how do you know what to say no to? Here are five simple considerations to prune your work to make space for the invisible commitments: 

1. Say no to things, not people.

Think about what versus whom you’re saying no to. There are some people who will inspire you, lift you up, help expand your thinking to another level. Prune the obligations, not your people. Say yes to them and to the opportunities, big or small, to hang out or collaborate with them.

2. Say no to things someone else can do. 

Delegate things that somebody else can do. Accepting that you cannot and don’t need to be the master of everything is liberating. This is an opportunity to collaborate with capable, talented people and to let them shine.

3. Say no to all work, no fun.

Stop working nonstop. Boredom can lead to higher creativity. Take time to be bored and to let your mind wander free of constant distractions. Along those same lines, say yes to sleeping. You can and should literally sleep on things and let your unconscious do its work while you’re sleeping. 

4. Say no to days crammed with meetings.

If you spend your days going from one meeting to another, block an hour every day for a different kind of meeting I call the magic hour. It’s an hour a day where you reflect, think creatively, and problem-solve. Protect this time by making it a repeatable habit, preferably the same time each day, when your brain is not tired, with no email or social media. Even one hour spent on your growth project will add up and pay off.

5. Say no to the negative voice in your head.

Don’t judge your work. The best way to get out of your mind, and be less self-critical, is to get into work and produce something. Anything. To do this, set a manageable and nonjudgmental goal, such as I will write this many words or create this many sketches. The work adds up, and some days are better than others.

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