“Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It often takes courage to say. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.” -Judith Sills
Warren Buffet wrote, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
By “almost everything,” Buffett was referring to the ceaseless littany of demands the world places on our attention. In “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to attention as “psychic energy.” Csikszentmihalyi wasn’t invoking the mystical concept of psychic power as advertised by fortune-tellers and mediums, rather he was emphasizing the fact that our ability to pay attention is a limited resource, and consequently, we should be wary of the opportunity costs involved when making decisions to spend or invest our psychological capital.
Derek Sivers, the creator of CD Baby, has a simple and useful system for determining how to make sure you’re investing your attention wisely:
“Those of you who often over-commit or feel too scattered may appreciate a new philosophy I’m trying: If I’m not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, then say no. Meaning: When deciding whether to commit to something, if I feel anything less than, “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” – then my answer is no. When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say “HELL YEAH!” We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.”
Sivers made a brief video talking about this idea and you can watch it here.
His idea, however, is not without counterpoint. Personal development trainer, Sid Savera, cautions against taking Sivers’ point to literally:
“Don’t Write It Off Just Because You Don’t Think It’s A HELL YEAH. I don’t advocate everyone attempting to do everything – but I do think it’s important to choose to live your life. We do a great disservice to ourselves when we shut out opportunities, just because we assume we would not be interested in them. I have a number of personal examples, and I’ll share a few. When I first started running, it wasn’t a HELL YEAH – it was just something I tried out for a couple weeks. Now for years I have run 3-6 times a week and love using it as an excuse to take a break from my computer to go get some air – and inspiration.”
I agree with Sivers and Savara. Both of their ideas are clearly useful depending on the context. I think the key here is to go beyond the tendency to think in terms of absolutes and embrace a flexible vision of life where decisions are made based on a combination of curiosity and commitment to core values.
On one hand, it’s important to keep an open-mind. Some of life’s most interesting discoveries are made while engaging in activities that initially appear to be a waste of time. On the other hand, we should never say “yes” just for the sake of ending conversations, avoiding conflict, and fitting in. The best reason to say “yes” is because your affirmation is in alignment with your actual priorities and principles. Sometimes the best “yes” is “no” because it’s only by saying “no” to the things that are not worthy of our time that we make ourselves available to the things that truly matter to us.
I think the important question is, “When you say ‘yes,’ are you saying ‘yes’ to something that you genuinely believe is good for you to explore or are you saying ‘yes’ just to avoid the perceived cost associated with what you really think you should do?”