When we say yes to the wrong projects, we squander our energy, effort, and best output. Here's how to say no to the wrong projects in the New Year.

There are lots of reasons we take on the wrong projects. Some, to be sure, are well intentioned, like wanting to help people we care about or pursuing new, innovative ideas. But others aren’t. Like trying to keep up with the Joneses. Or making career decisions based on fear. Or chasing business trends just to appear cool or current.

No matter, the reality is that every project we agree to requires our energy and effort, and in some cases, our hard-earned money. So when we say yes to the wrong projects, we squander all that. And, worse, we stop doing our best work on our ‘right’ projects.

It takes courage to do less, especially in today’s overachieving culture. But ask yourself: how would it feel not to spin my wheels? What more would I achieve? How would my work or business benefit? How would my relationships grow? And how would I be better able to give back?

The good news is the choices are yours — and you can make them consciously.

Choose Courage

For most people, courage conjures up thoughts like battling in war zones, fighting fires, or combating crime. But that is what I call “big C” Courage — seemingly superhuman acts to applaud and admire, and perhaps for some of us, to aspire to.

But there is also “little c” courage — the courage that exists within everyday people, in small everyday moments. Having hard conversations. Saying no. Admitting you were wrong. Facing problems head on. Or calling out injustices when you see them.

But little-c courage also includes actually seeking out opportunities to build up your courage muscles — to proactively do things that push you to grow and evolve as a human being. This might be challenging the status quo, taking more and bigger risks, confronting old fears, or doing whatever it may be that lies outside your comfort zone and really stretches you.

So let’s get to an act of little-c courage that can change your life: saying no to wrong projects.

Choose Less

Undoubtedly, your plate is overflowing with projects and ideas, like a closet so cluttered that you can’t actually see or focus on anything.

Now you’d probably say that all those things are there for a reason. And I’d believe you. Some may have a story. Others might reflect a memory or promise. And perhaps a few feel profoundly personal. But just as a closet isn’t meant to hold outdated, unworkable, or completely impractical things, your plate isn’t meant to hold wrong projects.

So to do your best work, you must muster the little-c courage to choose less.

Choose to Let Go

Carve out some quiet time to write out a list of all your current projects and ideas. And not just the professional ones, but also things at home and within your various pastimes and communities. Consider everything — from major business initiatives to minor household projects — not leaving a personal, family, or work stone unturned.

Once you’re done, study the list and then start paring it down. To begin, ask yourself four questions, putting an asterisk next to every item that meets the ‘criteria.’ Be honest. After all, your best work is on the line.

1. Which items wouldn’t trouble me to eliminate right now?

2. Which items would I feel happy to put on ice or abandon all together?

3. Which items reflect other people’s priorities rather than my own?

4. Which items are fine ideas, but don’t spark me in socially or spiritually meaningful ways?

At this point, you’re surely looking at many asterisks. Some may surprise you. But others not so much. Either way, take a deep breath: It’s time to let go despite the predictable chatter in your head. “But I’ve put so much time into that already.” “What will our customers think?” “My family would kill me.”

Letting go isn’t easy, but it’s not without purpose either. Finishing anything simply because you started it or someone else is pressing you is never a good reason to take on wrong projects.

So, yes, doing less takes courage. But your best work is worth it — and the choices are yours.

Charlie Gilkey

Charlie Gilkey is the founder of Productive Flourishing and the author of “Start Finishing: How to Go from Idea to Done” and “The Small Business Life Cycle.”

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