When your calendar’s packed and you yearn for space, how do you say no to some things? I’m all jazzed up, because my friend Angele and I just spent a Zoom call helping each other answer this question. She runs a DEI consultancy, and she and I’ve been connecting monthly ever since we met in an online group more than a year ago. We’ve never met face to face, but she’s become one of my favorite business confidantes.
As soon as I got off the call, I felt inspired to capture what we discussed, in the hopes you’ll find it useful as you balance all the priorities swirling around your business or passion project. Because here’s the thing: When you run your own venture, saying no is one of the most important skills you need.
Yes, you’ve heard this before. Angele and I have too, countless times. But that doesn’t mean we’re actually good at it. Saying yes is easy. It comes naturally, especially if you’ve been an employee who handles multiple projects, a family member who safeguards her loved ones, or a community member who makes a difference.
The longer we’ve been habituated to say yes, the harder it is to say the unpopular word out loud: no. Even so, becoming a business owner has taught me the skill of saying no is critical for true leadership. I’ve learned to live out this warning from Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: “Many of us say yes to things because we are eager to please and make a difference. Yet the key to making our highest contribution may well be saying no.”
So, Angele and I discussed strategies that have worked for us, along with ones we hope to try in the future. When it comes to calendars, nobody’s more of a wizard than Angele. You should see this woman’s planners; they are works of art! I say planners, plural, because she’s shown me both her digital and spiral-bound versions.
Strategy 1. Label Time Blocks to Take Up Space
Unlike Angele, I do not consider myself a calendar person. To the contrary, I’m the type who gets twitchy about timetables boxing me in. That said, it’s impossible to run a business and not see the correlation between time and money. And there’s no way around it: The most impactful things I’ve done in my business happened, because I made time for them.
One thing that’s worked for both Angele and me is calendar blocking. Yes, this is a thing, and you can find half-hour videos devoted to the topic on YouTube. My intent isn’t to get into the weeds, though. Instead, it’s to inspire you by sharing how blocking time helped me accomplish some of my big, hairy goals.
Here’s an example of what my calendar looks like today. It may not look like rocket science, but this system took me a few years to develop. There’s more here than meets the eye: So much so, that I’d call my current calendar management a spiritual practice. To achieve the habits reflected here, I’ve had to look my own sense of worth directly in the eye. I’ve had to face my fears about taking up space, an undertaking nobody can achieve without some deep thoughts about unconditional acceptance.
With that out of the way, I’ll start by talking about the colors. Colors make anything more palatable for me, so my first step was getting rid of a boring document–ew! In my early days as a business owner, I used color solely as a time tracker, after the fact. Unlike the more useful method I use now, I labeled my work retroactively, designating time spent on Client A with one color and Client B with another. These after-market designations were all that made it onto my calendar, along with meetings. A few years into my business, however, I realized this process had severe limitations.
Strategy 2. Stop Valuing Some Categories Over Others
I now know that client work is only part of what makes a venture successful. In my early days, however, I didn’t have the confidence to own this idea enough to schedule time accordingly. If you’re new to entrepreneurship and this sounds familiar, you’re not alone! Now, my colors fall into four major categories:
- Green for operations and content creation (because systems mean money)
- Yellow for client work
- Purple for events and networking (connecting with people lights me up and serves as a critical marketing function)
- Black for unassigned time (because if you wait till you have a reason, the slot will get filled)
Are there ways I could break these into further subcategories? Sure. Are there additional categories I could include that would make for a satisfying life? Of course. But for me, these four are the ones that have helped me best manage my time, in a way that’s simple to understand and leads to my highest contribution.
Without them, my business won’t thrive, and neither will I. Now that I’ve settled on these categories, it’s easy to glance at a week–past, present, or future–and assess the health of my venture. If there’s a balance of colors, I’m spending time in ways that will keep the business running smoothly while maintaining my well-being. If the colors are out of whack, something’s missing and I need to correct things.
Strategy 3. Create Margin, One Way Or Another
The better I get at being a human being, the the more equipped I am for self-employment. Managing my schedule (and on a deeper level, my finite energy) elevates my humanity in a few key ways. First, an ideal week has segments that are completely blank. Leaving space unscheduled has become a non-negotiable for me. Whether I’m doing client work or creating content of my own, I prefer to work in deep, thoughtful blocks. But all this creating means my mind needs breaks, not to mention my body.
One of my goals in self-employment is having enough margin to respond to the rhythms of nature. If it’s a sunny June day (can I get a hallelujah, fellow Minnesotans?), I’m determined to walk our golden retriever Indy once or twice a day. Not doing this feels positively criminal! Unscheduled time gives my day enough margin to choose when that happens.
If you’re a calendar lover like my friend Angele, by all means put self care on yours. Unfortunately for me, this feels too much like being told what to do. Though I’m the first to advocate for self care as a critical business practice, it’s never worked for me to designate slots for it. I’m highly motivated by inspiration. If there’s unplanned space on my agenda–maintaining this is a practice–chances are good I’ll choose a healthy way to use it. And if it doesn’t happen? I give myself grace. Tomorrow I’ll exercise, putter in the garden, or take Indy to a local lake.
Strategy 4. Block Time for Your Next Dream Project, Indefinitely
Another benefit of my calendar system is that Mondays and Fridays are blocked, indefinitely, for Teach Your Thing development. I use this time however I choose, devoting it to whatever activities will move the needle on my business. This includes two things: Operations tasks, which take more time than you think, and dream projects.
As I’ve discovered, our dreams aren’t frivolous. Not only are they just as valuable as the urgent tasks, but our ability to go after our own ambitions will inspire someone else to do the same. Every week going forward, nothing gets put on my calendar on Mondays and Fridays, unless I choose to cut in to this time. The first project I completed with these blocks was developing an online course. I can assure you I’d never have accomplished this feat, any other way.
When it comes to calendar practices, bookending my weekdays is the one I’m most proud of, because it represents my biggest turning point, personally and professionally. Trust me when I tell you, however, that reserving these days didn’t just happen. For months, I forced it in, and even then, just barely. Over and over, this previously blocked time would get obliterated by urgent tasks.
Strategy 5. Protect That Time, Bit by Bit
Still, I was determined to create that course, so I squeezed in whatever minutes I could. I celebrated every hour I devoted to my development projects, even if it was just one or two on a given Monday or Friday. Weaning myself away from other things to honor this time was a gradual process. At the time, my course-creation efforts felt woefully insufficient. But now, looking back, it’s clear: Blocking that time proved critical to my completing it.
Having these days booked indefinitely, gave me the permission to stand up for it, slowly over time. Piece by piece, I started saying no to things I’d have prioritized automatically before. After the course of a year, I could finally see what a difference these hours had made. And guess what? I’ve since found that completed projects breed more completed projects.
Over time, my confidence in saying no has grown. My hope for you is that you start, wherever you are. Choose one project you want to dig into. Even if it’s big or scary, determine what an appropriate time block for you might look like. Choose a color for it that makes you happy or shows you mean business. Then, block it on your calendar from now until the end of time. Give yourself permission to do this thing. Think about how it will feel to get it done. Your highest contribution matters, after all.
And though the next part isn’t always fun, start chipping away at it, week by week. And as you go, consider me your cheerleader!