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  • Writer's pictureCrystin Rice

Every "yes" is a "no" to something else

Fact: there are 24 hours in a day. (Okay, if you want to get technical there are all kinds of caveats about gaining and losing seconds here and there, but our clocks run on the assumption that there are 24 hours in a day.)

We are doing something each of those 24 hours. It might be sleeping, scrolling social media, or staring at the ceiling, but you are spending that time doing something.

Often at the start of a new year, we are tempted to say we're going to add something (working out, meal prepping, spending more time with family) without paying attention to what we're also going to be removing. There are still 24 hours in a day, though, so when you add something, you're removing something else.

It's not only at the start of a new year that we face these decisions, too. We are constantly working to balance these tradeoffs. The boss asks you to work late and you promised to meet a friend. You know your health would benefit from a little more activity, but long days leave you already tired. You want to save money by making your own meals, but it's hard to slow down long enough to even come up with a plan.

So how do you decide what to say no to?

  • You could just say yes to everything and hope it all works out. In that case, you are giving a blanket yes to others and no to your wellbeing. (Feel free to make an appointment soon to work with me on recovering from burnout.)

  • You could say no to everything and keep your life exactly as it is. That might work out if nothing around you ever changes and you never experience any unexpected life challenges. I'm guessing even a hermit in the woods with no one else to deal with has to adjust to changing weather patterns and health concerns, though, so you won't always get to choose whether you have to make changes or not.

  • You could wing it, generally trusting your sense of intuition, solid boundaries, and strong understanding of core values. Most of us do this, and it's not a bad option.

  • You could be intentional about what you choose to safeguard and where you want to direct your life. Interested? Keep reading.

As I discussed in a previous post on dealing with emotional overwhelm, most of the things we want to do are generally good things to do. It would be so much easier if we could look at our list and could cross off what's "bad," leaving what's "good." When we approach our list that way, though, we start to judge sleep, hobbies, and play as "bad" because we think they aren't the most productive.  We act as though we're machines that we just need to run at max capacity, being the most productive we can be.

Is productivity the goal? What, then, is a good goal for a life well lived?

A goal without a plan is just a wish.

For most of us, the issue is not between the “good” and the “bad,” but between the “good” and the “better.” Often "good" becomes the enemy of what's "better." Most of the things we want to do are probably good to do. If we had time to fit all of that into our day, there wouldn't be a need to prioritize them. But chances are, you can't fit everything in. So it might be good to do, but there are some thing that are not good to do right now.

You're going to have to rank what's important to you, and that means knowing what's important to you. I'll cover that in a future post about values. For now, here are some tips about recovering some time that might be slipping away without you realizing it.

What NOT to eliminate

When trying to add something new, we often first look at cutting down how many hours we sleep. Many of us have tried to add a good thing to our life, saying "I'll just get up earlier" - saying yes to working out/quiet time/prayer and no to an hour of sleep.

Sleep isn't the only thing that refuels our body. There are energy-giving activities and energy-taking activities. Ideally we balance those out. When looking for what to cut from their lives, people tend to devalue hobbies and socialization, forgetting that those are the activities that refill us and give us energy to do other things that have to be done. Saying no to the weekly game night with friends might mean you end up more stressed and worn out, actually making it take longer to do the things you don't enjoy.

What should we eliminate, then?

Consider where you spend your 24 hours. Most of that can be categorized into 4 groups.

  • Crisis Tasks - urgent and important to deal with right away, these are the things that can't be ignored without bringing on more painful consequences (someone has been hurt, your car or an important machine doesn't work, surgery, an angry client). Some of these became urgent because of procrastination or lack of planning.

  • Proactive Tasks - energy-giving activities that are important to your values and living the life you want to live (education, hobbies, time with family, exercise, nutrition). These tasks rarely call out for your attention so they are easy to ignore, but you ignore them at a cost.

  • Reactive Tasks - tasks that distract us from our main focus in life. We spend a lot of time here meeting other people’s priorities and expectations (phone calls, meetings, drop-in visitors, paperwork), thinking we’re really in crisis mode. It's best to delegate these energy-taking tasks when possible.

  • Disengaged Tasks - what we do to cope after feeling burned out by living in crisis mode and reactive mode (numbing out with substance use, excessive and mindless binge-watching, excessive scrolling social media, binge eating). These are tasks that initially feel like they are helping us rest and restore ourselves but don't actually add to our quality of life the way that hobbies, social time, play, and joy-giving activities of proactive mode will.

When you are looking for areas you can say no to, disengagement mode seems like the obvious place to look, but it's often more helpful to take a hard look at the reactive mode tasks. You could spend your entire life working to meet all of the expectations that others have and never completely fulfill them. Where can you delegate tasks and set boundaries that will free up time for more proactive mode tasks?

If you can answer that question, you might start to see what you need to say no to in order to say yes to those life-giving activities you told yourself you want to start doing this year.

Additional Resources

If you're looking for more information like this, check out Stephen Covey's book First Things First, which guides you through determining how to set your focus on what's most important to you.

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