The thing is, I really like saying yes. I like new things, projects, plans, getting people together and doing something, trying something, even when it's corny or stupid. I am not good at saying no. And I do not get along with people who say no. When you die, and it really could be this afternoon, under the same bus wheels I'll stick my head if need be, you will not be happy about having said no. You will be kicking your ass about all the no's you've said. No to that opportunity, or no to that trip to Nova Scotia or no to that night out, or no to that project or no to that person who wants to be naked with you but you worry about what your friends will say.
Being a “Yes”-sayer has always been a source of pride for me. I’m the colleague who always finds a way to fit your project in, the girl willing to go on a date with anyone who asks and does not seem dangerous,* the one who will always give you a ride to the airport (even on Christmas, so long as you don’t mind my dad coming with us because I always believe in quality time), and the one who will accept your invitation to Tourettes Without Regrets and immediately follow it up with, “So, what exactly is that?”
Like David Eggers, I really like saying yes. I’m even something of a yes-instigator (like inviting someone I’d never worked with to co-found a business with me, organizing a singles event for my extended network, and asking a stranger to dance to street musician’s sweet tunes). For a long time, saying yes was a core part of my identity.
And I’m not alone. Our culture has an entire acronymical lexicon centered around “Yes!” Millenial fueled expressions like FOMO and YOLO didn’t just encourage us to agree to do things – they taunted us with the terror of regret.
Besides, being a yes-sayer comes with benefits: people like you. “Yes” makes you fun, helpful, and convivial. It makes you reliable. You’re the one who will spend five hours revamping a friend of a friend’s resume to make it shine and not ask for a penny. You’ll go out with someone even though you’re exhausted and could use a night in to drink tea and recharge. You’ll work late for a fortnight for a product launch, skipping your weekly soccer games and dinner dates. You’ll pick up slack.
“One yes begets another, and soon, you’re drowning in a pile of agreement and consent.”
But yes is a slippery slope. My dad once warned of this: “Everyone remembers the one time you said no, not the one hundred times you said yes.” I was still fresh-faced in the working world, too much so to understand the true implications of his words. Once you’re known for saying “yes,” stopping will change your reputation. One yes begets another, and soon, you’re drowning in a pile of agreement and consent, addicted to not only not letting people down, but to being liked on top of it.
I found myself at this drowning point recently. Suddenly, “Yes” wasn’t feeling so good anymore. I was spending over 10 hours a day working – I was always busy with something – but I wasn’t doing, creating, and moving forward on what mattered most to me. Instead, I was in a self-created fire drill, proverbially running amok, stressed to the point of misery – and perhaps worst of all, I had no idea.
I thought this kind of existence was just life.
Friends gave me advice. Make “no” your new favorite word. Set boundaries. Just stop. Practical advice, sure, I couldn’t figure out just how to apply it. Then a client of mine – who is also, as you’ll see, a friend – recognized something had gone astray in my world, and offered to use his hotel points to put me up in a hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, for a stay far away from my California home. It was half selfish, as he wanted my quality of work to improve, but also half selfless: he wanted my quality of life to improve.
“My yes-o-mania had zapped my ability to execute on the projects I cared about most.”
Taking a break was honestly one of the scariest things I’d done in a long time. I was always moving, always humming. And now, I worried that without anything to say “Yes” to, I’d lose the momentum I’d infused into my daily life.
Instead, quite the opposite happened.
Once in Missouri, it took four full days of practice before I started to get good at the art of doing nothing. In those four days, I slept for almost 50 hours, read two books, forced myself to watch Jane the Virgin (not because the show is bad, but because I was so far gone even sitting through a creatively wonderful TV show was foreign to me), and took a few long runs. I literally had to drag myself away from my laptop, taking myself out into the city just to resist the temptation to work (they have lovely books stores there, in case you visit).
And after those four days of much silence except to order a mimosa or make chit-chat at the grocery store, something amazing happened: I started to see my life clearly.
My yes-o-mania had zapped my ability to execute on the projects I cared about most. Instead of doing three or four things really well, with excellent time management at play and with space for myself to think and be the sort of being I am, I was pretending to do everything with the results you might expect from putting a koala at a keyboard.
I made lists, noting what I wanted most from life and work, and what I wanted least. I mapped what on my to-do list was urgent and important, paying special attention to what was important. I studied the past two weeks of my time sheet. I thought about my needs (I’ve had a chronic health issue that I’ve pretended doesn’t exist – but it does and I needed to factor a nap into every day). I wondered how I could create a daily schedule that worked for me, drafting re-drafting my priorities, clients, a personal needs into little matrixes.
Once I had all that done, I knew there was one more thing I had to change: my habit of saying “Yes.”
I started small – by turning down a date with a guy I met in Kansas City. I’m sure he would have been nice to hang out with, but I went to Missouri to spend time with myself and have zero obligations to anyone but me…and I really wanted to take a bubble bath (something Californian’s don’t get to do these days). I moved into minor league no-saying by not responding to my emails, letting the auto-response do its job. Finally, I let go of a client who I enjoyed working for but who didn’t help me meet my goals as a person and writer.
If I’m going to be the person I really want to be – one who is committed to the people she loves and writes for, and one who takes time to write for herself – I’m going to have to put my Brave Little Toaster face on and say “No,” to a lot more things. And I encourage you to join me.