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.