Every couple weeks I write about happiness, success and living great lives. Sometimes I make a point that sparks debate! Like in my last column where I espoused the “Say yes” philosophy to kick yourself out of bouts of loneliness.
I stand by that philosophy but had some people write to me saying, “Sure, that works, but what if you have the opposite problem? I’ve got a calendar full of commitments. Now what?”
And I get that, too.
When you keep saying yes to things, guess what happens? You slowly end up with more options, choices and invitations than you can actually accept. This transition happens to many of us. You go from parent of one kid to parent of three. You inherit a team of 10 people after a new promotion. You start a new job and end up chair of three volunteer committees.
That’s when it’s time to drink the opposite medicine.
My friend Derek Sivers has a great philosophy when you’re overextended called, “No or Hell Yeah!” and it’s really quite simple. Here’s how it works: You receive an invitation to do something (a date, a job, a social event, whatever) and then take a minute to observe your authentic reaction, which is invariably either one of two things:
1. A super emphatic, fist-pumping, “Hell yeah!” where you’re just shaking with excitement to do it — in which case you actually do it; or
2. Literally anything else at all — in which case you don’t.
The beauty of this model is that it filters every other positive reaction into a no: “Um, sounds good!” “Lemme check my calendar, I think I’m open,” or the dreaded, “Can I get back to you?”
No, no, all no!
Those are lukewarm reactions that remain positive until just before you get to the commitment and realize you wish you’d said no instead. Maybe you even bail last-minute, which destroys trust and hurts your reputation. It’s much easier to simply filter your options through the “No or Hell Yeah!” model up front and make sure you’re only committing to things you’re pumping your fist to do.
What’s the benefit? You don’t kill those invisible opportunities you haven’t dreamt up yet — those big projects you need time to dive into and all the downtime your mind needs to create space for what matters.
I knew it was time to switch from “Say yes” to “No or hell yeah!” when I looked at my calendar and realized I was swamped, morning to night, on things I really enjoyed doing but — and here’s the crucial part — only some of which was life changing.
If “good” is the enemy of great, then “great” is the enemy of “life changing.”
Why does it need to be life changing? Because, trite as it unavoidably sounds, life is short. There are loads of options and obligations you simply can’t say no to because they’re part of your work or family. And that’s fine. But that leaves precious little room for personal and social commitments, which makes it so important to set a really high bar for those. When you do, you’ll free up time to focus on what you care deeply about. And the benefit of doing that will start leaking into your work and family life, too.
Personally, making this transition wasn’t easy. In fact, it was downright painful. And it continues to be. It’s not just saying no to a podcast to write a chapter of a new book. It’s missing a family dinner because you’re flying to interview someone. You sometimes stare in horror as a brand-new relationship you just know would take off if you put some time into it sputters and dies by the side of the road. These hurt — deeply. It’s hard to say no to friends, fun projects and fly-away ideas. There’s nothing pleasant about that.
But the alternative? Well, those giant regrets haunting you later in life — that maybe you could’ve tackled your dream job, that perhaps you should’ve done something that felt more meaningful — those are harder to brush away than the obligations cluttering your calendar next week or next month. Because plotted on a long enough timeline (your lifespan, for instance), saying yes to everything can eat away at your long-term sense of purpose and legacy.
And that’s a prospect that’s actually easy to say no to, don’t you think?