Every yes is a no, every no is a yes

If you think about how you spend your hours, much is determined by commitments you have taken on over the years. Sometimes the moment of decision is obvious, sometimes less so. Sometimes the choices are constrained, and sometimes more freely made, but in any case, what we choose to say “yes” or “no” to affects the daily experience of life.

This is straightforward enough, and so many articles on time management talk about how to say “no” more frequently. Sometimes that’s wise. It’s also not the whole story, because sometimes people say “no” to things that probably deserved a “yes.” The “no” happened because the person said “yes” too many times before to smaller things, and so there appeared to be no space for the big new opportunity.

Instead, I think this is a better way to think of it: Every yes is a no, and every no is a yes. Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. Agreeing to take calls at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on some particular day means that I won’t wind up going deep into the flow of writing. I’ve chosen to chop up my time. It might have looked like an easy yes — I was free — but it is still a no to something.

Likewise a no to that 10:00 call is a yes to having an open morning. Of course, from that perspective, it sounds like all those articles are right, and it’s really about saying “no” repeatedly, but that’s debatable. I’ve told the story on this blog before of speaking at a conference of women looking to get back into the workforce. A lady in the audience said she was thinking of returning to work, but then when would the bathrooms get cleaned? In this case, she was thinking of saying “no” to building a career so she could say “yes” to being personally available to clean her bathrooms at 10 a.m. on a weekday.

Every yes is a no, every no is a yes. The upside of keeping this phrase in mind is that it reminds you that expectations are infinite, and time is finite. You are always choosing. A choice to do one thing is a choice not to do something else, and therefore a choice to disappoint someone. So the question is who are you choosing to disappoint, and why?

Once you accept that you can’t meet all expectations, you can be more rational about which you choose to meet. The words “no” and “yes” become tools for choosing the right expectations, rather than having great power in and of themselves.

6 thoughts on “Every yes is a no, every no is a yes

  1. I really like this yes/no concept. You put into words something I think about often in structuring my days. I also think it would be interesting to look at this in the context of Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies (e.g., being an Upholder, it would likely be easier to say no to other people’s requests in favor of putting your own big picture goals first). Additionally, while I understand your point about the cleaning-the-bathrooms” comment, I think there is more to what that woman said. I am a recent SAHM to three kids under five, due to circumstances, not choice (husband went back to school after years of contemplation, requiring a move to a new state where I currently have no professional contacts or license and no personal support network!). As I think about going back to work in the next year or so, part of what makes it so overwhelming is knowing that in addition to finding a new job, I will also have to replace myself in my current job, i.e., sufficient child care for all three kids, help with cooking, cleaning, and all of the other tasks that I currently handle. My husband is very involved and would be working on this as well, but still, I am currently the primary caregiver and homemaker. In short ;), I think that comment raises an important point about the challenges of reentering the workforce. It’s not that cleaning is the absolute priority, but that finding a new job outside the home may leave an awful lot of other jobs in need of filling within the home.

    1. @Kate – thanks for the comment! I think that this rubric can be helpful for Obliger types too, because it makes it more clear that saying yes to one person’s expectation is a no to someone else’s — and it might really be someone else, and not just you! — expectation. Since you can’t say yes to both, it forces you to weigh which person should be disappointed.

      Re the woman re-entering the workforce – of course there are more considerations than the bathroom. That was the one she happened to mention! I do think this gets at the idea of time being elastic. As you find a new job, you might discover that some of the work you’ve been doing doesn’t have to be done to its previous standard. Employed women spend considerably less time on housework than women who are not employed. But there was a great study once (I need to dig it up) finding that people could not tell, looking at their houses, which women were employed or not. Some things expand to fill available space, but when there is less space available, people make do. (It may be that when mom is employed, everyone is out of the house more, and thus not there making messes…but in either case, there wasn’t a difference in observed cleanliness).

      1. Would be very interested to see that study! I have had similar thoughts lately. We sure do spend a lot more time washing dishes and vacuuming than we did when we were all out of the house for work/childcare. Thanks for responding, and have a great weekend.

  2. Three cheers for importing the concept of “opportunity cost” into our daily lives! It’s a really valuable and thought-provoking way to look at our decision making.

    1. @Kathleen! Yep, it’s a concept that deserves more consideration. Just that people know there always is an opportunity cost! I sometimes find myself yelling at articles – grumpy old man style – when the reporter clearly doesn’t get that.

  3. I’m really struggling with this lately 🙁 I seem to have an amazing ability to get overloaded and take too much on. So many articles talk about it terms of assertiveness (‘learn to say no’) but that’s not my issue – it’s more a genuine excitement about new projects and being ridiculously optimistic about how much I can squeeze in…but then nothing is fun when you’re stressed and overwhelmed.

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