When to Say Yes, How to Say No
My friend from Germany calls me on the phone, his accent as jaunty and upbeat as ever, “Hello Steve my man!”
“I’m over in London for 24 hours tomorrow. So am I gonna see you?”
The way he says this always makes me laugh. I can hear the excitement in his voice.
“Well… I have a deadline end of this week. But yea, why not? Lunch somewhere?”
I know. It all sounds pretty ordinary. But I used to be terrible at this sort of thing, by which I mean juggling work and play.
If I had a deadline, for my PhD, for a book, for a creative project, I would go into ‘cave mode’, shutting off just about everything in my life, almost as a masochistic self-inflicted punishment, like I had to pay my penance and live in isolation like a Jesuit monk in order to get anything done.
It took the better part of my twenties to realise that this was no way to live.
The Secret To Productivity – Don’t Sacrifice Meaning, Sacrifice Junk
Of course, as I write this, I’m also torn. Because I know it’s impossible and naïve to think you can do it all.
Sacrifice lets you focus. It’s what will make someone able to climb mountains, make movies, start companies – all those accomplishments people want to add to their name one day.
But there are good and bad sacrifices.
There’s what I call “sacrificing junk” and then there’s what I call “sacrificing meaning.”
Sacrificing Junk ✓
This is the one you really want to do.
Sacrificing junk will free up room in your life for the things that actually matter.
- Lounging on a friends couch drinking beer and watching crap TV because you’re both bored.
- Scrolling through YouTube videos you don’t even want to watch as a form of procrastination.
- Spending hours complaining to people, trading life problems and bemoaning the state of the world.
- Mindless shopping.
- Going to that party you hate just to “show your face”, or to avoid FOMO.
Get rid of these, and you’ll feel 100% better, happier, and instantly more productive.
Suddenly your calendar will have space for you to read more books, get more done, and spend time on activities that actually bring you happiness.
Sacrificing Meaning (X)
This is the BIG MISTAKE.
If you’re an over-achiever or what they call a “Type-A” personality, it’s likely you’ve strayed into sacrificing things that may have brought a true sense of meaning and fulfilment to your life.
These are the things like:
- That trip abroad with your best friends that is TOTALLY worth carving out a week in your calendar for.
- That spontaneous night out at the cool new club that will make you tired tomorrow but is something that’s unlikely to happen again soon.
- That day you have lunch with a treasured friend from abroad who’s only in town for 24 hours (see above).
- That family get-together that you know will feed your soul and make you feel good.
These are the experiences that are unique, that bring you true joy, and that add colour and memories in your life. Not to get dramatic about it, but I’m convinced these are the things people wish they had done more of on their deathbeds. Sacrificing meaning is a big mistake that you feel later on down the road. Often they are experiences we can’t get back.
Junk is the clutter that wastes our time. Meaning is the juice that we should save our time for.
How To KNOW if it’s Meaning Or Junk – 3 Easy Questions
What things should you say “no” to?
I would say, “listen to your gut”, but since I’m overly analytical, I’ve also devised three easy questions to ask yourself if you want to know whether it’s MEANING or JUNK you’re giving up:
- Is this a unique experience or activity I truly enjoy?
- Is it time spent with someone who brings me joy and happiness?
- Is it likely to happen again anytime soon?
If you can say yes to at least two of these, it’s probably worth finding time for in your schedule, even if you have to give up that extra bit of progress on a difficult project.
So here’s my new formula: Say “NO” to time-wasting, but say “YES” to spending time on things that bring your life meaning.
Not all time has to be spent on work to be productive. If it’s meaningful, trust me, it’s worth the hours.