Why is it so hard to know when to say NO? You’ve already got way too much on your plate. You’ve got a job, you’ve got friends. You’re overdue to call your mom, aren’t you? And your kids? Is it possible to ever feel like you spend enough time with them?
So what are you doing here?
You’re here because you want to make creative work. You can’t shake that desire, but maybe you also can’t figure out how to make it happen in your already-packed life. Maybe you imagine that someone like me, who gets a lot of stuff done, that I have a simpler life, somehow.
As I’ve gotten more and more productive, I’ve also made some very hard choices to prioritize my creative work over other things. Sometimes, I make the wrong choices. But mostly, they’re just choices I wish I didn’t have to make. How to choose what to do? That’s hard.
- When I was a teen and in my 20s, music was at the center of my life. I went to rock shows multiple times a week, and went dancing as often as possible. I was in a band. When I met Matt, who likes music even more than I do, and plays much better, I started unconsciously “delegating” music to him, to the point where music takes up a tiny fraction of my consciousness now.
- I used to garden and build things. Now I have children.
- I used to cook elaborate meals. Now I cook simply (although that’s partly due to the aforementioned children).
- I used to try to learn about wine, but now have “delegated” that knowledge to Matt as well.
I’m not saying become a hermit. That’s not healthy.
I’m saying make conscious choices. Like how I made the choice last night to see Blade Runner on the big screen instead of finishing this blog post. Because, I mean, Blade Runner on the big screen! That’s worth my time.
And please understand, I do not mean to say that, if you’re a single parent of three who is holding down two jobs, you and I have the same issues. Clearly, you will have less time available for creative work than I will. I don’t want to minimize that. That’s real.
But what that means is that whatever time you do have available for creative work, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week, that time is so valuable to you, it’s so precious, that you’ve got to make the smartest, most conscious choices possible when choosing what to do.
What you need is a sieve: you need a tool that will help you understand your choices and figure out how to spend your time.
“It’s either HELL yeah. Or NO.”
— Derek Sivers
Ron Wimberly is a cartoonist, and he kicks ass at it. He’s got some amazing books coming up. He’s also got a million ridiculously cool friends around the world and gets a lot of offers that are way more interesting than my usual fare. But he knows that if he actually does all the stuff he could do, he won’t make the comics he wants to make. So when does he say no?
Ron is (trying to) implement a rule that stems from this 2009 article by Derek Sivers: it’s either HELL yeah. Or NO. Anything that doesn’t reach “hell yeah” status is just…off the list.
But the tough part, for Ron, or for any of us, is to maintain the vision that inspires our work. You’ve got to see that a night out at a bar with interesting people will be less satisfying—in the long run—than having your new book finished…in six months.
You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball. And that’s not easy. If you think too hard about the big picture, it’s easy to get lost in the Dark Forest, or just feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to even get started.
But if you don’t feel that your real goal is in your reach, you will make short-sighted choices. You’ll say yes to no things.
And how do you resist that pull? By moving closer to your goal, regularly. And that happens via focus. Not just in a hell-yeah way, but in a “If I concentrate on this one task for 20 minutes, I can achieve this today.” That focus creates the beautiful feeling of being on a path to finishing, and that feeling is what keeps your eyes on the prize. That’s the power of know when to say no.
All that said, it’s important to know if a given project is HELL YEAH for you.
When to say NO.
If it’s not exciting, if it will not lead where you want to go, or if it will not pay necessary bills, that’s when you say no. A definite no.
You get to define the criteria by which you decide, but you’ve got to figure out the criteria around how to choose what to do: WHY are you doing the thing? I see friends and colleagues all the time struggling with massive projects that basically they’ve forgotten why they’re even working on, or taking on things that are way too large for their purpose. And if it’s a no, even if it’s something you’d love to do, and it’s sitting there tempting you, you’ve got to avoid it, totally. Avoid. Avoid. Really. Avoid.
What’s a HELL YEAH for you? And what’s a NO?
You can find an expanded version of this article in my book, Growing Gills: How to Find Creative Focus When You’re Drowning in Your Daily Life.
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