This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.
It is with some pride that I can think of some “big” things I have passed on doing.
Tickets to the Super Bowl.
A trip to a private island.
I’m not proud because I think I am better than those things. It was just that I had better things to do with that time, at that time. Sometimes it was with my family; sometimes it was other work opportunities; sometimes it was just because I was exhausted and I needed to rest.
Saying NO is a rich feeling that’s only tangentially related to money. Yet if I am being honest, it’s not one I indulge in enough.
Just because you’re offered something that might be good for your career, that would feel good to your ego, that most people would have said YES to, doesn’t mean you have to listen to your ego and accept the offer. You can say NO.
It’s easy to forget that, especially with peer pressure and FOMO, but it’s true. Saying NO is a rich feeling that’s only tangentially related to money. Yet if I am being honest, like most people, it’s not one I indulge in enough.
But in the last year, as the pandemic radically reoriented so many parts of everybody’s lives, I was reminded painfully of what economists call “opportunity costs”. I’ve always been productive and disciplined, so I was under the impression that even with all my traveling and various projects, I wasn’t suffering much for it.
I was producing books, after all. I spent time with my kids. I was exercising. I was writing my daily emails for Daily Stoic and Daily Dad, a monthly Reading List email and another weekly email. But in having so much suddenly taken away, I was given the gift of seeing what all the busyness was actually costing me.
It turns out that being home for bath and dinner every single night had a massive impact on my relationship with my young children, their behavior and my marriage.
The last 12 months have been the most creatively fulfilling and productive months of my life. It turns out that being home for bath and dinner every single night had a massive impact on my relationship with my young children, their behavior and my marriage.
Obviously, the costs had been there all along. I just wasn’t aware of them, or I was denying them. So while I do take pride in some of the things I’ve turned down over the years, the reality is I have been undisciplined more often that I was disciplined. I may have been producing … but it wasn’t as good as it could be.
And when it didn’t feel like my work was suffering, it was only because other parts of my life were. All those meetings I didn’t really need to go to. Interviews or press that I did because it was flattering. The time when my kid wanted my attention but I was glued to my phone, to some email — so glued that my NO was implicit. I didn’t have to be somewhere else. I was home … and yet I was gone all the same.
Hopping on this Zoom call means not hopping on the bike and getting some exercise. Staying up late to watch another episode of a TV show or scroll on your phone is saying NO to a productive early morning.
You have to understand: Everything you say YES to in this life means saying NO to something else.
The decision to agree to that coffee meeting means giving up an hour of reading. The decision to hop on this Zoom call means not hopping on the bike and getting some exercise. The decision to stay up late to watch another episode of a TV show or scroll on your phone is saying NO to a productive early morning. The decision to go to some conference across the country means missing one of those meaningful moments with your young kids at home.
Which of these will you get more out of? Which will produce the growth you seek? Which will you remember 10 years, 10 weeks or even 10 days from now?
Why is it so hard for us to see this? Inertia, for one. Ego, for another. We identify with being busy, and we think being busy will take us towards our best work but that’s because we’re blinded to the long-term costs.
If success doesn’t earn you the right to say NO, what kind of success is it? If you’re not strong or free enough to pass on things, are you really that strong or free?
There is a haunting clip of the late Joan Rivers, when she was well into her 70s and she was asked why she keeps working, always on the road, always looking for more gigs. Telling the interviewer about the fear that drives her, she held up an empty calendar: “If my book ever looked like this, it would mean that nobody wants me, that everything I ever tried to do in life didn’t work. Nobody cared, and I’ve been totally forgotten.”
That’s an attitude that creates a lot of work, but does it create anybody’s best work? No. Desperation stinks. It corrupts. It wears you down. What kind of rich life is that?
You have to be able to say NO; you have to be able to pick your shots. And if success doesn’t earn you the right to say NO, what kind of success is it? If you’re not strong or free enough to pass on things, are you really that strong or free?
In fact, really caring about your work is a great reason to need to be able to say NO to stuff.
A pilot gets to say “Sorry, I’m on standby” as an excuse to get out of things. Doctors, firefighters and police officers get to use being “on call” as a shield. But are we not on call in our own lives? Isn’t there something — or someone — we’re preserving our full capacities for? Are our own bodies not on call for our families, for our self-improvement, for our calling?
Remember, that’s what time is. It’s your life, and you can never get it back.
I want to remind you — and myself — to always think about what you’re really being asked to give. Because the answer is often a piece of your life, usually in exchange for something you don’t even want. Remember, that’s what time is. It’s your life, and you can never get it back.
And when we get better at saying NO, we get to experience the benefits of the flip side of what I said above. Because everything you say NO to means you’re saying YES to something else.
YES to your important work.
To your health.
To the people you love.
Even to just a moment of stillness in a busy life.
You deserve that. And you’ll be proud of yourself if you do it.
This post was originally published on “Meditations on Strategies and Life, the blog by Ryan Holiday — go there to read more of his posts and his newest book, Courage is Calling, has just been released.
Watch his TEDxDunapart Talk on stoicism here: