In the last post, Workflows in Chaos, we looked at the importance of making settled decisions and a difference between task management and workflow mastery.

Moving on to addressing chaos, let’s consider at least three major categories:

  1. Saying “No”
  2. Satellite Task Systems
  3. Creating Space for Practice

Today we’ll examine the first.


Saying “No”

The first line of defense is to learn how to say, “No”, in all the ways we need to. To some degree, this is more about how we shape our environments to work for us. To another degree, this is literally about saying “No.”

We may need to say No to others demanding our attention and foisting new projects on us. We may need to say No to ourselves and turn down some interests in favor of others.

The work of saying No in its myriad forms is a practice. Sometimes, even the most skilled among us might only be able to attempt to say No to an onslaught of the impossible.

And of course, saying No is a much larger deal than I can possibly do justice in a blog post.  Stating one’s worth, feeling anxious, staking one’s reputation, balancing the psychological needs of co-workers, employers, students and more is no simple matter.  Still, we can at least consider a few practical ideas.


Examples in Communications

During my sessions with clients, I wish to avoid interruption. Therapeutic conversations are often intense, and interruptions can be toxic to the work. Meanwhile, my other clients and other healthcare workers need a way to  reach me when urgently needed.

To address this dilemma, I set expectations using:

  • Outgoing messages
  • Initial discussions with clients

Among other things, my current outgoing phone message says, “I check these messages on weekdays until about 4pm. If you need to reach me more urgently, please call me at ###-###-####.” Meanwhile, I leave the primary ringer for the office off, and the second number on.  That way, most messages just wait for me. I can check them when the day starts, between clients, or towards the end of the work day.

Similarly, with email, we can use an automated response.

Even better, if you can dictate the methods of technology that you prefer, you can reduce the number of buckets to check, too. When I first meet clients, I note my preferences to avoid text and emails. The very need to deal with them is, therefore, removed. I also note that if we need to talk for more than 5 minutes by phone, we should consider scheduling a session instead.

We often tout the benefits of technology, but they are powerful tools and, therefore, benefit from caution and deliberate use.

(See also chapters on communications and agendas in Creating Flow with OmniFocus for in-depth discussions about setting up your own workflows for response.)


Build Channels for Communication

Shaping acceptable modes of communication is vital. Consider how others can reach you in ways you would prefer:

  • How can a student ask questions so that you are not unduly interrupted and they can still follow material? Should they ask as soon as they have a question? After class?
  • Do they have clear access to you at certain times? Are those times well understood or described at the points when questions arise?
  • Do administrators have a clear way to ask questions at times you prefer?
  • Are those times clear?
  • If that is impractical, can agreements about times be made school/organization wide, citing the improvement of focus when attention is channeled and managed?
  • etc.

Maintain a Clear List of Active Projects

Personally, I maintain a list of 3 active creative ongoing projects alongside a list of about 10 waiting in the queue behind them.  The rest of my OmniFocus database and the review schedules those projects are given count as a secondary queue, though I have ways of addressing smaller tasks within those.

Of course, your environment may be different.  Perhaps, for you, you would need 10 active projects. Whatever method you create should be about keeping tabs on the set amount of time and attention you have to dedicate to creative work – i.e. work that is unclear in terms of its scope.  When someone asks you if you can do something, it is much easier to say No when you have a clear idea that saying otherwise would negatively impact what you are currently doing.  You are much more able to say, not now, but maybe in a few weeks, and then make arrangements to target several weeks down the road for that work.

(See also Zen & The Art of Work – module 15 for designing reliable systems of Active and On Hold projects.)


Certainly, there are other ways demands may hit, some predictable and some not, and other ways to say No. The demands and consequent rules and regulations that must be shaped in a teacher’s environment are likely quite different from my own, but the principles remain the same. We must set expectations and create our preferred channels for communication, both in medium and time.

In this way, I do not only mean saying No as if we were toddlers. It is about filtering the demands of the environment to work within the constructs we dictate.