My friend looked at me with a calm and matter-of-fact face when I kept complaining about having too much on my plate and whining about how I could never complete all of the responsibilities I had managed to say yes to over the past several months. Instead of chastising me or letting me get away with my pity party, she said, “I want you to go home and do something about it.” She continued to give me instructions on how I should take a paper plate (a literal metaphor for the plates I was spinning) and draw a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. She said to make a list of all of my commitments and decide whether they were giving me joy or were sucking the life out of me. It was a tangible exercise in determining what I needed to say or continue to say yes to and evaluate how I should say no to some responsibilities that weren’t the best choices for me at that particular time.
That scenario happened many years ago when my children were young, and I still go back to it every year as a way to evaluate how I say yes and how I say no to those who want my time or even my talents. It’s sometimes a painful process of realizing that it’s much easier to add things to my plate of responsibilities than to use the simple two-letter word no.
As leaders, you have probably experienced the same type of frustration in one way or another. Maybe you enjoy a lot of different activities and your initial response when someone asks you to do something is always yes. Or maybe you’re the type of leader who has a difficult time saying no to someone because you believe it will damage your relationship or even your opportunities at work. For me, it’s all of the above. I’ll admit, I have an aversion to saying no.
So how do you learn the value of when to say yes and when to say no? I may not always be the best example of someone to follow, but I have learned a few things that help me reset priorities and seek the Lord for wisdom in this struggle. I hope these suggestions will help you begin the process of evaluating what’s on your plate and which side of the plate it needs to appear.
First, make a list of all of your responsibilities or journal your activities. Like the plate illustration, it’s a good idea to keep a weekly or daily journal of your commitments and how you spend your time. Earlier this year, I kept a four-month journal of my daily activities and evaluated how I could better use my time while also creating margin for rest and pleasure. You too can begin a simple process of evaluating your time. Consider what commitments line up with your spiritual gifts and your talents. Ask yourself how much time you spend with the Lord each day and whether your priorities honor the Lord.
In the midst of the crowds who wanted time with Jesus, we often see Him pulling away and finding time alone with His father. Luke 5:15-16 says, “But the news about him spread even more, and large crowds would come together to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. Yet he often withdrew to deserted places and prayed.” If Jesus understood the value of pulling away from the demands of others and making time with the Father a priority, how much more should we?
Do you feel like you have responsibilities that are difficult to say no to, such as work assignments? Again, keep track of your calendar and evaluate your time and effectiveness. At the appropriate time, present it to your supervisor(s) and ask them to help you find ways to prioritize. Don’t be afraid to ask for a little help or to be relieved of some duties if it’s too much. Give them facts and not excuses and approach them with an attitude of humility and honesty.
Besides the plate idea, another way to evaluate your priorities is to take four different colors of index cards and do the following exercise: designate one color for things you want to continue, another for things you want to stop, another for things you want to do more of, and the final one for things you want to do less of. Keep the cards in a place where you can pray over them and review them, but also consider how you can begin to implement the practical process of eliminating the things you need to set aside.
Second, evaluate whether you should hand off the responsibility to someone else and develop leadership skills in another person. Let’s face it. We all love the praises of others when things are going great, but when you begin to feel overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, consider how you can hand off and delegate the job to someone who has leadership potential.
Years ago, I led a women’s Bible study on Monday nights. I loved leading this group, and it was one of the highlights of my ministry at the time. Even so, I took on a new job that left me conflicted about how I could continue leading the study. I reluctantly asked a capable friend to take my place. About a month later, I was driving home from my new job and got a call from this friend. She began to tell me how much she loved leading the group and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to step into a new leadership role. Instead of feeling sad about the loss of doing something I loved, I experienced the joy of seeing someone walk into her God-given gift and ability and do a better job than I could have done if I had stayed in that role.
Maybe you need to not just say no to something, but rather hand it off to someone who has more time and is willing to take the task and make it better. Don’t let your pride get in the way of helping someone else step into their gifting and calling. As Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians 12, “there are different gifts, but the same Spirit” (v. 4). Even though we function as one body, we have many parts (vv. 12-27). Discover the part you are intended to play and allow others to use their God-given gifts to edify and build the body of Christ.
Third, learn the art of “choosing to cheat.” I first heard this concept years ago at a conference where pastor Andy Stanley spoke. He introduced the idea that our choices force us to cheat on something else if we become overloaded. For instance, you may have to make a decision between a church commitment or a family commitment. No matter which decision you make (good or bad), someone gets cheated. Instead, choose to cheat depending on the highest priority. In my life, I’ve had to make some sacrifices between work and time with my family. Sometimes work won, but I always wanted my family to know they were more important than my job. If I had to fulfill a work commitment instead of being at every ballgame, I made sure they knew the “why” behind the choice. I think my children also understood they weren’t the center of my universe, but they were definitely more important than my calendar or my to-do list.
Finally, increase your dependence on the Lord and recognize the value of humility in your leadership. Admit when you are overloaded. Don’t try to be a superhero. You don’t have to be good at everything. Jeremy Taylor, a prolific writer in the seventeenth century, wrote The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living. He outlined several rules for walking in the grace of humility. The first was having a realistic opinion of yourself. He said, “Remember that you are merely human and that you have nothing in yourself that merits worth except your right choices.”1 Learning to say no may take some humility on your part, but it will also help you recognize that you must learn to depend on the Lord for your strength. Anything you are capable of doing for Him is done through Him.
Kelly D. King is the Manager of Magazines/Devotional Publishing and Women’s Ministry Training for Lifeway Christian Resources. She is the author of Ministry to Women: The Essential Guide for Leading Women in the Local Church. You can hear Kelly at Lifeway’s You Lead events that are held in several cities around the country or listen to her co-host the Marked Podcast with Elizabeth Hyndman.
1. Jeremy Taylor, Devotional Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Group, eds. Richard J. Foster and James Bryan Smith (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2005), 244.