Pull Some Weeds — Learn to Say No

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I used to love gardening. Once this time of year hit I loved tilling the soil, planning my different veggies, and going to the nursery to buy sprouts. Once they were in the ground, I could almost taste the cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers. Yummy.

But nearly every summer in June, I’d leave the country for a few weeks. By the time I returned, the garden was more than knee-deep in weeds. The plants were still there, and most of them grew just fine, but it took me a day or two to get the garden back on track. The weeds stifled the growth of the plants I valued.

Around the same time, this metaphor struck a chord. The things in life that matter need plenty of room to grow, and without proper care, they won’t thrive. Part of that care is more than watering and fertilizing (the most common use of this metaphor).

I can’t be all things to all people. With only so many hours in the day, too many activities, even if I enjoy them, are like weeds in my garden. They stifle the growth of what really matters to me. Most successful businesses have known this for ages: do one thing and do it very, very well.

Some airlines, for instance, have found themselves in financial trouble because of multiple planes in their fleet. Airbus, Boeing, and MacDonald Douglas, not to mention varied sizes. Each of these needs special parts, labor, and skills.

The most successful cut-rate airlines have saved millions of dollars by flying a limited number of aircraft models — all the same make.

Translating this into one’s personal life looked like this for me. I was speaking for and attending dozens of events, all over the country and around the world each year. It felt like I was traveling as much as I was home, so it was time to say no. It was time to pull some weeds, so to speak. On my website, you can see this progression. My “Appearances” page dwindled from twenty or thirty appearances a couple of decades ago to just a few each year now.

I was also writing for varied publications, teaching in several colleges, consulting with law enforcement, and maintaining my private practice — all of which I enjoyed a lot, but which could easily have become full-time jobs in and of themselves. More weeds needed to be pulled.

The process wasn’t haphazard. I sat down and wrote out a ten-year plan. I focused on what I wanted my life to look like. It helped me prioritize. So, I concluded I would no longer schedule so many speaking engagements. I also cut back all of my teaching responsibilities to one college, zeroed in on one or two writing outlets, and pared my private practice and supervision to a maximum of ten hours per week.

I now refer about 90% of the new patient requests I receive, decline most of the writing and media requests, and spend far more time at home than I used to. Speaking engagements are now few and far between.

I miss some of the things I used to do, but the things I AM doing are far more polished, I’m in better health, and most importantly for a Type A introvert like me, I’ve learned just to sit and do nothing sometimes. That was probably the hardest thing — saying “no” to me when my drive to stay busy nagged at me.

All those years ago, my garden wasn’t huge, but it was enough for what my family needed. I would have liked to have had corn, cantaloupe, and other plants that take up tons of garden space. But I focused on what I could do with what I had.

I see families with multiple children in a variety of sports and activities — scouting, church, dance, and gymnastics, and the list goes on and on. Some realize that even though they may be having fun, there must be some weeds to pull. Are parents getting any recreation time? Are those hours driving here and there fulfilling or are they just some of the weeds?

One Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I sat in a chair at my farm, enjoying the warm sun, and doing nothing for much of the afternoon. That was the “plant” I needed to nurture that day and I’ve learned long ago that if the weeds of life stifle times like that too often, I wear out.

So, think about it. Saying “no” is OK. Sometimes if it helps to prioritize. You and your family will be better for it.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]