So, you say you don’t have enough time to do the things that you want to do. In fact what you’ve done is filled your life with meaningless shit. I know. I’ve done it myself. A lot. The problem is most of the things you’ve taken on just aren’t that important. They rob you of vital essence and complicate your life. I know it all seems crucial. I know you don’t see a way out of yet another pointless corporate meeting to talk about what you already talked about twice. I know you think you can’t get out of spending yet another night watching TV with your spouse because you “never spend any time together,” but you’re wrong. You can and should say no. Enough. Thanks, but no thanks. It’s one thing to watch a show that enriches you, that enthralls you, that teaches you something about the nature of life. But most TV is not Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Most TV is fast food for your brain. It looks good ahead of time, tastes all right going down, but afterwards you feel like shit and wonder what the hell you were thinking. The key to all of this is learning to say no. And learn it fast.
There are lots of books and things out there that can help you. Mostly, they fall under the category of “assertiveness training.” You might be thinking, I don’t need any of that shit. I’m assertive. But I’m betting you’re not, at least not in all areas of your life. You’ve probably got your assertiveness dialed in with a few spots of your existence. For me, it’s business. I have no problem pushing folks when they get lazy, stupid, arrogant or just plain drop the ball repeatedly. I will get in their face and make something happen. The same is not always true in my personal relationships, though I go in streaks there. I have days when I can tell my wife fuck off, this is not happening and days I just want to be left alone and everything she says I can’t seem to do anything about. When it comes to trivial things like confronting a contractor who sucks at his job or fighting with a hotel that failed to send me an invoice, I run from it. It sounds crazy, I know. Part of it is my engineer’s mindset. I simply can’t understand how so many people can fail to get shit done so often. The next step in anything is always obvious to an engineer. It’s concrete. Do this and then do that. It’s procedural code. I can’t understand why in the world I have to call that hotel five fucking times to get my invoice. And so I do nothing or I get passive aggressive. It never works. I’m betting in your own life you’ll find something similar. My wife has no problem jumping on the phone and demanding a supervisor and complaining for an hour over a $20 injustice but when it comes to getting what she wants out of me she is passive aggressive to the max, cajoling, guilt tripping, acting sad, rather than just coming right out and saying what she wants. Lack of assertiveness manifests differently for different people. And it’s in those dead spots of weakness that you will find your missing time. It’s there that you can free up energy to do more of what you love. If you just yelled at that fucker at the hotel the first time, you would have got what you needed and not had to call two more times because you were too nice. If you told your spouse, look there is nothing on the tube, either think of something useful for us to do together or I will go off and do something more rewarding, then you wouldn’t have felt guilty and lashed out at him or her the next day over nothing. In other words, it’s your fault. Hard to hear I know, but it has to be said. Now that you know, you can do something about it.
In this modern world, we are surrounded by unimportant bullshit. People constantly think that various meetings are essential, that they need to add another evening networking event, another after school activity. They don’t. In fact, what they need is a lot less of this crap. It’s all a total and complete waste of time. You need less not more. You need quiet time. As Kahil Gibran said in the Prophet, “a seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?” Here is what I’ve found in my silences: You will not get better at juggling it all. You will just burn out, get depressed and then one day you will look back on your life and wonder what the fuck happened and why you never wrote the great American novel or took a trip to Bali. Let’s say you join a charity and help save a bunch of kids starving in the 3rd world, but at the cost of you being so exhausted that you have no energy left except to fall in front of the TV at night and then go to sleep after too much wine. I say it’s not worth it. It sounds cruel, but if you rob yourself to save others, you do nobody any good. The anger and sadness you feel because you are broken and all of your energy is sapped will come out in other ways, undoing all the wonderful karma that you dished out in that charity. You will do shitty work, yell at your wife or kids, or forget your friend’s birthday. The key is to pick a few things that really matter. One charity. One activity that energizes you. Or none at all, if none of them do. Chances are you’re not Mother Teresa and your calling is not spending your life in India saving the children. If it is, God bless you, but it’s probably not. So a better choice is to understand where you are in the chain of existence. It might just be that in this life you’re supposed to be a Buddha or Saint, but that’s unlikely. And sainthood doesn’t always require the ultimate sacrifice. It doesn’t require you going to India to save all the sick and dying. You can make a difference right here, right now, every day. Instead of passing that bum on the street, stop for a few moments and break him off a part of your sandwich or give him a few bucks. Call your grandmother who hasn’t heard from your in six months. Prune your activities, so that you have some energy left to take care of yourself. Does your kid really need yet another after school activity? If they do, can they get a freakin’ ride from somebody else?
Of course, when you try to take back your life, you will face resistance. Understand that the people around you are highly invested in their own self-importance. Telling them no forces them to reflect on that. And it hurts. They don’t want to face it. They feel that everything they’re doing is essential. Your friends and loved ones will encourage you to follow your dreams, right up until the point when you actually do it. Then they will employee all manner of sneaky and not so sneaky shit to stop you. They will guilt trip you, make completely rational arguments about why you shouldn’t go do Bali all of a sudden, deal out fear or just plain get angry and jealous. Let them. If you need to learn how to respond to that, go ahead and pick up a few books on the subject. For me, I wanted to write more, more often. I picked up the excellent Write Every Day, by Cathy Yardley. It’s short and to the point, exactly as it should be. It does not waste time with fluff . That is what I am going for in my own life. If I can see the true point of a meeting then I go right for it, with the goal of getting something done faster and closing down that meet early and giving people back some of their day. You’d be surprised by how many people appreciate this when you say something like “it sounds like we know the next steps here, let’s call this meeting and I’ll give you back a little of your time.” I also picked up the excellent book When I Say No I Feel Guilty. I read it when I was younger, but it didn’t have much meaning to me. Things change. Now, I recognize the unhelpful behaviors the book talks about and I’m working to change them.
In other words, I am taking back my life, one no at a time. You can too.