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How I Knew When Saying “Yes” Was Hurting My Productivity (And Worse)

When your productivity sinks, so can your sense of purpose. Here’s how one writer learned the hard way to protect both.

How I Knew When Saying “Yes” Was Hurting My Productivity (And Worse)
[Source photo: Donald Tong via Pexels]

Years ago I got divorced and went from married suburbanite to urban bachelor in the span of a few weeks. Talk about a bumpy landing. I didn’t have any friends, family, or social support downtown, so it took me time to develop a new two-word philosophy to rattle myself out of the wallowing.

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That two-word philosophy was simply “Say yes!”—to anything, anytime, with anyone. And I don’t regret it. It’s brought lots of opportunities my way that I’d never have encountered otherwise. But for everything I gained in new opportunities, I paid the price on productivity. The more you’re given a chance to do, and then actually do, the less time you have to do it all.

Here’s how I knew it was time to rein it in, and the method I use to keep everything in balance today.

The (Limited) Virtues Of “Yes”

Defaulting to yes actually worked well for me in those first few years. I went to charity events for organizations I’d never heard of before, I was the guy at the concert who doesn’t know the songs but buys the album anyway, and I always had some internet friend crashing on my couch.

I also had lots of nights that didn’t end well. Stutter stops, missed connections, cold lonely walks home from some get-together that didn’t go anywhere. But I also said yes to doing a TED Talk that was ranked one of the most inspiring, and said yes to writing blog posts that turned into The Book of Awesome and sold a million copies.

And then, over time, something happened. I suddenly had more options, more choices, and more invitations than I had time to take advantage of. 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 look back and realize that you said yes to more—more meetings, more opportunities, more family members. Life accelerated. Your career jumped forward. And then it hit a point where you suddenly have too much to do.

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Now what?


Related: Six Reasons To Say “Yes” When You Really Want To Say “No”


“Hell Yes!” Versus Everything Else

My friend Derek Sivers has a great philosophy that I’ve adopted as well. It’s 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), 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 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 Sivers’s model up front, to make sure you’re only committing to things you really want to do.

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“Great” Is The Enemy Of “Life Changing”

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 I loved so much as to call 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 already loads of different options and obligations you simply can’t say no to because they’re part of your work or family responsibilities. And that’s fine. But that often leaves precious little room for your personal and social commitments, which makes it all the more 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 so you can write a book chapter. It’s also missing a family dinner because you’re flying to interview someone. These hurt—deeply. It’s hard to say no to friends, fun projects, and fly-away ideas. You sometimes have to stare in horror as a brand-new relationship you know could take off if you only had the time to put into it, then watch it sputter and die. 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 doesn’t just tank your productivity, it also eats away at your sense of purpose.

That’s a prospect it’s actually easy to say no to, don’t you think?