Lifestyle Tip #14: Say no.

I said no to being awake earlier this week. I simply went to put my head down for a bit after doing the dinner dishes, and I woke up 11 hours later. It got me thinking about how minimalism applies to time.

nancy reagan just say no

Those of us who grew up in the 80s remember First Lady Nancy Reagan’s call to abstinence from drug use. But I’m not advocating for anyone to “Just Say No.” What I’m after isn’t a simple slogan — one that either had little real impact or made life worse for people of color, depending on who’s answering the question. Instead, I’m talking about taking a strategic look at our time. The way we could look at our possessions, our finances and what we do online. And then, making some choices.

That night I hibernated? I had opted out of an evening work event. It’s an event I’ve been to before and enjoyed, and it’s organized by a colleague I consider a friend. I had planned to attend. But I said no.

Why I said no

I’d spent five of the last ten nights away on work travel and was missing my family. I’d just gotten home late the night before. By the time it was afternoon, I started to feel the kind of tired where you have trouble standing up. So I beat a retreat home for an early dinner. That’s when I fell asleep before my daughter did, probably for the first time ever.

If I’d gone to the work event instead, I would have been exhausted and cranky upon arrival. Spending that time talking with my coworkers would have discharged the introvert batteries even more. I’d be doing a disservice to my employer by not fully showing up, and to myself and my family besides.

Instead, I got a family dinner. Lindy got a break from solo parenting. And I woke up feeling rested for the first time in many days. Ready to take on another work day. And ready to host the PTA board and several of their kids at our house that evening.

Modern work life rewards employees who say yes. Yes, I’ll help out on your project. Yes, I’ll join your conference call. Yes, I’ll meet with you. In a previous job, I’d have 45 to 50 meetings in an average week. I had very little control over how I spent my time. Instead of advancing the ball for my employeer, my profession, my career… I’d go home feeling like a creature of everyone else’s priorities.

There is pressure on students as early as elementary school, to build those musical and athletic skills and work those extracurriculars. If you’re not mastering an instrument, playing a sport and volunteering at a soup kitchen by the time you’re 6, what chance do you have of getting into an Ivy League school like your parents did?

It really doesn’t have to be this way. Unscheduled time is good time.

I recently finished skimming The Power of No, by James and Claudia Altucher. I can’t recommend reading it in its entirety, because it interweaves practical tips on time management with some pretty odd guidance on meditation and spirituality. But the helpful takeaway in three sentences is this: looking out for your own needs is your responsibility, because nobody else will do it for you. And saying no to harmful situations, like those that might harm you or make you sick, is common sense. So should be saying no to engagements, conversations and relationships that don’t make your life better.

What remains, just as when you pare down your unnecessary possessions and expenses, is only what’s essential.

Another benefit to no: expectation management

I pride myself on being true to my word, and being there for people when they need me most. As a general rule, I do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it. (Or DWYSYWD.) It’s really hard to do this when you say yes to everything all the time. I’ve known plenty of wonderful people in my life, friends and colleagues both, who are always “yes” people. Out of politeness, or out of a genuine desire to be helpful and social, they end up writing checks their schedule can’t cash. Disappointment results.

If you say yes but don’t follow through, or follow through late, or follow through incompletely, you’ve failed to live up to the expectations you’ve set for yourself. If you say you want to get together, but you’re too busy to actually schedule the date, disappointment lingers.

If you say no, you’ve set the expectation and met it without having to do anything further. If you say you’re simply too busy to get together, or not interested, disappointment makes an appearance and then fades away.

How to say no

Some of this declining can be instinctive. That late-night concert on a weeknight, an hour away, when you have a school-aged kid? That’s probably going to be a no. Same for spending a few hours at a Nationals game if you hate baseball or prefer another team. But others can come as a result of setting simple boundaries for yourself. Following a plant-based diet, for example, means saying yes to some things and no to others. It’s just boundaries.

Likewise, I have a longstanding habit of accepting no more than one weeknight engagement per week that takes me away from dinner with my family. I blew that one by doing two weeks of work travel in a row, but it usually serves me well. I suspect many of us have similar boundaries: if it’s too expensive, too time-consuming, too far away or even just too boring, we don’t do it. But I think we should do it more.

This is an especially powerful notion when it hits you in the middle of a completely overstretched week like it did for me. But it’s something we can practice anytime, even during moments of relative calm.

Saying no: you can do it too!

My challenge to you for the week: say no to something. Make it something to which you’d ordinarily be inclined to say yes. See how it feels to do something else during that time. See if there are any other consequences of opting out.

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