The Surprising Benefit of Being Inflexible

How No-Exception Priorities Protect Your Productivity

When I coach people on reaching their goals, I advise them to be flexible on their strategies. The goal might be sacred, but we can change strategies as often as we need.

But that’s not a blanket endorsement of flexibility. In fact, flexibility can significantly damage our productivity if we’re not careful. How?

We’re Master Negotiators

Many of you know I have five daughters and eight grandkids. One thing I can tell you for certain: Kids are natural-born lawyers. I’m pretty sure I learned to negotiate by the age of two. It takes no time for kids to learn the art of compromise.

Say it’s bedtime, and what’s the response? “Can I have ten more minutes? It’s not a school night. Besides, I need a drink of water. And I need to go potty. And I need a bedtime story. And I don’t like these pajamas. I want my pajamas with the trains. And one more bedtime story.”

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We carry those same negotiating tendencies into adulthood. The problem is that we sometimes turn the negotiation on ourselves. Instead of trying to see how far we can get with our parents, we try to see how far we can get with our own boundaries.

What do I mean by that?

Sabotaging Our Own Success

Maybe we have a hard stop on our workday, a scheduled weekly review, or morning routine to follow. Those are excellent boundaries that will serve as guardrails for our productivity.

But then, all too often, we sabotage ourselves by creating exceptions up front. It might look something like this:

  • “I’ll leave the office at 5 p.m., except when there’s a crisis going on.”
  • “I’ll do my weekly review Friday afternoon, unless I’m exhausted. I can always do it Monday morning.”
  • “I’ll start my morning ritual by 6 a.m., unless I’m feeling sluggish.”

These sound reasonable, right? And I know there is a ton of goal-setting advice out there advocating flexible boundaries, but this kind of flexibility is not your friend.

The reason is simple: If you give yourself an out, chances are good you’ll take it. For instance, leaving the office at 5 p.m. might be a challenge. It’s easy to define any inconvenience as a potential crisis and push your workday out another hour.

I bet we can all imagine a hundred different examples like that. Eventually, all those special circumstances stack up and you’ve failed to achieve what you know is most important.

That’s why flexible boundaries don’t make us more productive. They force us to negotiate our priorities in the moment, which then invites us to make compromises. And those compromises kill your productivity.

Set Your No-Exception Priorities

It’s better to decide once and be done with it. Then you can get on with the work that really matters. Eventually, we have to learn to say, “no exceptions.” If your productivity matters, then there are a few commitments that deserve that level of commitment.

Here are three of mine:

So, now a question for you: “What are your no-exception priorities?” If you want to really make progress toward your most important goals, you need firm, not flexible boundaries.

Question: Can you think of a time flexible boundaries undermined your productivity? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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