How to create time

The magical power of saying ‘No’

Everyone knows it’s impossible to create time.

Unless Elon Musk has cooked up a new invention that I'm not yet aware of, we are all dealing with the same 24-hour constraint. (Not that constraints are bad things...)

Yet, somehow, people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett find hours per day to read and think. To read. And think. Hours! Who has time for THAT? 

Apparently some of the richest humans on the face of the earth. 

Many of us who don't even happen to oversee multi-billion-dollar companies or foundations struggle immensely with time management. And who could blame us? The list of personal and professional responsibilities is seemingly never-ending. Seriously, how do you even have time to read this article right now? Aren't you supposed to be doing something?

Well, here's the thing. Our list of to-do items is naturally going to expand to fill the time we have. We are going to be doing something at all times—even if that something is sitting quietly with our own thoughts. So the challenge for us is to gain more control over that list of "somethings" rather than the other way around. 

How can we do this?

We can start by having the courage to say ‘No.’

We hate saying no. It goes against every people-pleasing bone in our bodies. 

  • Can you attend this meeting? 

  • Can you speak to my friend about his career? 

  • Can you listen to my sales pitch? 

Can we do all of this stuff? Well, yes, technically we can. But should we? 

Let's talk about it. 

What if we said ‘yes’ to it all? 

  • We attend the meeting even though it’s not 100% necessary. Maybe we pick up a bit of new information we didn’t already have. But... we just lost that hour. And maybe we attended another one, and another one, and another one. And wait, where did my week just go?

  • We agree to speak to the friend-of-a-friend about his career and we feel good for helping. But... then we trade five emails back and forth trying to find a time to connect. And then after we speak, he asks for three introductions. And then we find ourselves reaching out to that person we haven’t spoken with in six years and explaining “Well, I don’t really know him that well. But maybe you can speak with him?” Wait? How many hours did I just spend on this seemingly tiny favor?

  • We even say “Okay, we’ll listen to your sales pitch,” to the random person reaching out over LinkedIn via a copy & pasted message that went to how many thousand people? .... I’m totally kidding! We would never do this! Those people are the worst. (Seriously, please stop sending me these messages you shameless internet peddlers). Okay, well at least we saved SOME time. 

So, where does all of this “saying yes” leave us?

Well, it certainly leaves us stretched for time. It’s no wonder that a common refrain from the corporate workforce today is “I’m too busy to actually do any work.” Yeah, no kidding. If you attend every meeting where there may possibly be some tangential connection to what you do, you’ll absolutely not have time to get any actual work done. 

Those ‘pick your brain’ coffees (even if they’re virtual) add up, too. But are we obligated to over-schedule ourselves to the point of absolute and total exhaustion? I don’t think we are. And we should stop feeling guilty about it. 

I’ve already talked to you about the need for deep focus in order to do our best work. Everything I’ve described above—the meetings, the coffees, the over-scheduling—directly undermines our ability to do deep work. And it’s not just work. Anything truly rewarding—running the marathon, learning the new skill, investing in the relationship—takes focus.

By saying “yes” to everything, we are stretching ourselves too thin and robbing ourselves of what we need to feel truly content. We are depleting our energy on things that don’t matter—leaving nothing in the tank for the things that do. And for what? To not offend the friend-of-a-friend? To score an A+ on meeting attendance? To help a salesperson meet their quota? 

If you see this as selfish, I’m okay with that. Let’s be more selfish. Or, better put, let’s be more selective with what we say ‘yes’ to. Here’s a framework for how to think about this. 

How to know what to say 'yes' to:

  1. You are all-in. Author Derek Sivers coined the phrase “Hell, yeah! Or No.” It’s a great framework for thinking about what you choose to take on (or even the relationships you choose to pursue... or not). Are you completely excited about this? Awesome, do it. Is it something you’re pretty hesitant about? Well, maybe you’ve got other options.

  2. You have to do it. But, of course, there are just some things in life we have to do. Nobody likes changing diapers—I can tell you from my own personal experience today—it’s kind of gross. But we do it. There is no reasonable way around it. Even the most successful people in the world have to do things every day that they don’t want to. I wrote about that here when discussing the myth of following your passion. But... and this is a big but...this list is shorter than what most of us think.

  3. It gets you closer to achieving a goal. I’m all about doing hard things that have a purpose—things that get us closer to where we want to be. I spent six years of my life failing CFA exams before finally passing. It was not fun. But it got me closer to where I wanted to be (which ironically, it turned out, was being a writer, not a master of finance). 

  4. You find it personally rewarding. If you find personal value in the task, then it’s probably worth doing. So maybe helping someone with their career over a virtual coffee is on that list. It can feel good to help. It’s just a question of balance—how much of it can you realistically handle?

All of this is much more art than science, of course. We’re inevitably going to push ourselves too hard at times and find ourselves regretting it. What I’m saying is this: Let’s be a little bit more intentional about what we say ‘yes’ to. 

It's a useful exercise a few times a year to look at the tasks and responsibilities that are actually consuming our time. We are naturally inclined to think we must continue to fulfill them. But upon closer inspection, there is often more flexibility than we think. 

And there’s a lot at stake here. To live a sustainable lifestyle—where we are performing well in all of our roles (employee, parent, coach, etc.)—we have to find parts of it personally rewarding. Now realistically, not every part of our lives will feel that way (see diapers). But we need to achieve a certain amount of contentment to sustainably keep all these balls in the air.

And if we don’t? If every waking minute becomes about pleasing them? Well, that’s where it can all come crashing down. And it crashes down in the form of depression or substance abuse or mistreating our loved ones... or a whole host of things that I think we can collectively agree we’d like to avoid. 

So ironically, if we want to please people by doing a great job in all of the various roles we serve in life, we need to be a bit more selfish. We need to take care of ourselves first. 

The author James Clear explained it like this (paraphrasing from memory here so don’t quote me):

I can either respond to every Tweet and every email that I receive from a fan and spend my time adding value to those people on an individual basis. Or I can ignore almost all of those messages and focus on doing the work that made them my fans in the first place—writing books that have delivered life-changing value to millions. 

Focus. Focus. Focus. The modern world is set up to distract us in every way imaginable. But the feelings that we crave—happiness, pride, contentment—those don’t come from the whack-a-mole lifestyle were are constantly drawn into. They come from committing to things—fewer things than we think—and putting everything we’ve got into them.

So if you’re desperately short on time like I often am, take another look at the calendar and figure out what you can say ‘no’ to.

Maybe we can create time after all.

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Extra credit:

Photo credit: Insung Yoon @ Unsplash.com

Books: There’s been a lot written on the subject of saying ‘no.’ Two books I’ve come across on the topic are James Altucher’s The Power of No, and Derek Sivers’ Hell Yeah or No.

Podcast time: Okay, this is totally unrelated, but I mentioned Elon Musk earlier…. did you catch his conversation with Joe Rogan this week? Well, after all the saying ‘no’ you’ll be doing after reading this article, you should be able to free up a spare 3 hours(!) to give it a listen. I don’t endorse everything said by either Rogan or Musk—who both have a tendency to be pretty polarizing figures—but I do think that if one person alive today is likely to be remembered by humanity 500 years from now, it’s Elon Musk. Between his efforts to convert us to sustainable energy sources (via Tesla), or make us a multi-planetary species (via SpaceEx) or solve the worst neurological disorders (via NeuraLink), there’s a strong case to be made that he’s doing more important work today than anyone else on the planet. And we get a 3-hour window into his mind.

Fancy conference calls: Finally… anyone else on Clubhouse yet? Apparently, it’s all the rage. But I still can’t figure out why it’s better or different than conference calls. Anyhow, if you’re on there, you can find me @gregcampion.

Have a great week. - Greg

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