The Blog


May 18, 2009

Ego and Productivity: Don’t Let Your Default Answer Be “Yes”

So a lot of people are on board when it comes to running like hell from the Cult of Productivity – the mindset that says if you’re not hacking your life 24/7 and taking everything “to the next level,” then you just must not be a very committed person after all.

Of course, we know better (now), and we’re calling bullshit on this.  Running at maximum capacity does NOT equal a better life any more than redlining your car’s engine makes it last longer.  “Zoom zoom,” indeed.

So let’s talk about one of the many tools the Cult of Productivity – The Default “Yes.”

Just Say No (Where Have We Heard This Before)?

Somewhere along the line we’ve made the false connection between being busy and being cool.  It became a little high-schoolesque game to see who had the most gadgets, the most projects, the most emails on a daily basis.  Productivity became, in a sense, a pissing contest.

The more stressed for time you were, the more you had “arrived.”  The more you could impress people with being everywhere at once.  The more things you could jam on your personal and professional resume.

The problem with this is, when you spread yourself out like that, you’re spreading yourself thin.  Your circle of influence may have stretched to miles wide, but eventually it’s only a quarter-inch deep.  Not a good place to be.

But – gasp – you can’t slow down … that would be admitting weakness. That would betray a lack of “real” priorities.  And so when a new project, a new idea, a new commitment of time and energy comes by … how can you say no?

After all, it’s a really cool project.  And it’ll be a great networking opportunity. And I’m sure I could squeeze it in.

And then you end up like those trains in Japan, where they literally have to have a “spotter” to help push people into the train because they are packed so tightly.

Because saying “no” to a new commitment becomes equivalent to failure.

And we all know how unacceptable failure is in our society.  It’s like a non-airbrushed photo of a supermodel – it’s something to be shunned and attacked (eek!  It’s reality – run!!!).

And so time and again, we get tricked into saying “yes,” because we’re afraid of the fallout of “no.”

But if you don’t say no – relentlessly – the Cult captures you.

You know, having certain people view you as a failure isn’t so bad.  After all, if someone is going to be so shallow as to shun you because you aren’t willing to settle for burning your soul out prematurely, then that’s a really cool situation – you can weed out the posers and false friends from your life.

Who knows, you might actually end up left all alone … except for the handful of real people who accept you for who you are and are also willing to be transparent and honest about their own limits.

The horror.

But the Cult is relentless – so you’ve got to be relentless back at them.  You can’t just say “no” every once in a while – you’ve got to make it a default answer in your mind, because the pressures of society will try and force you into taking more an more on until you every last drop of you is squeezed out.

That’s a scary thing for a lot of people – the idea of not taking on and endless array of goals – but it’s a damned important one for your life.  Here’s why.

Saying “No” Means Saying “Yes” To Only The Right, Best Things

When you say “yes” to everything, you’re not making any judgement calls or assessing the value of things.  You’re just taking things on because they’re there, or because you don’t want to disappoint someone.

But this is madness.  It’s like deciding you’ll date anyone who is interested in you rather than looking for someone you like, respect and trust.

And just like sex sells in advertising, the Cult of Productivity wants you to be really easy when it comes to accepting goals.  It’s already loosened you up with the “contact high” of other people’s super-productivity, and it’s hoping you’ll be a sure thing.

But you want to respect yourself in the morning …

… so you’re going to want to be more discerning.  When you decide your default answer is going to be “no,” you’re forcing yourself to really evaluate whether this new commitment of time and energy really lines up with what you want for your life.

You’re going to have to ask yourself if it’s worth trading part of your life for it.  As @CharlieGilkey says: “If it’s not worth doing, doing it will be at the cost of something worth doing.”

So repeat after me: Saying “no” is not a sign of weakness.  It is proof you are not insane.

But it’s easier said than done.

How to push past resistance to “no”

There’s no doubt you’ll encounter a lot of resistance when you first start saying “no” – not only from the Cult of Productivity (who, let it be said, aren’t evil – they just believe you can always do something more) – but also from yourself.

It’s going to be difficult and uncomfortable to turn commitments down, but it will make you a happier person.  It will also have the side effect of making you (dare I say it?) more productive, because you’ll be freeing up more focus to handle the things that are currently on your plate.

And as your plate gets clearer, your mind will get clearer, too.  You’ll start rejecting commitments that add “shallow value” to your life and take on different commitments that feed your sense of self and value and contribution.  You’ll become someone who builds a fullfilling life rather than just a life filled with “one more thing.”

It won’t be easy.  But saying “yes” all the time is even harder, and you know it.  Start the practice of resisting new commitments and only saying “yes” when they truly align with what you want.

But how do you start saying “no” when you’re not good at it?

Next post will talk about how to do this – but in the meantime, if you’ve got a strategy for keeping the number of commitments you juggle sane, feeel free to add it in the comments.

Good luck – and start saying “no” more often -


19 Responses to “Ego and Productivity: Don’t Let Your Default Answer Be “Yes””

  • May 18, 2009 Claire Boyles (Business Coach)

    Never a truer word was said thank you for putting it into words and explaining it so well :)

    I have tweeted this link- would be valuable for anyone funning their own business to read this!


  • May 18, 2009 Jude Boudreaux

    great read, 1st thing on a Monday. I’ve found that using David Allen’s Getting Things Done methods have helped me say no to more things, since I finally had a full inventory of all of the things I had said Yes to.

  • May 18, 2009 Positively Present

    I think I’m pretty good at saying “no” when I need to, but I know a LOT of people who have trouble with this and end up very unhappy because of it. I’m going to pass this along to them. And, when I’m in one of those situations when I’m tempted to say “yes” but shouldn’t, I’m going to pull this up as a reminder to stay true to myself. Thanks for this!

    Positively Present’s last blog post..9 ways to walk in your own shoes

  • May 18, 2009 Joely Black

    Thank heavens somebody else doesn’t like productivity. I’m good at saying no, and reminding clients that I’m a human being, not a machine. Asking “Why am I doing this?” is always a good question to ask if they are struggling to take no for an answer.

    Joely Black’s last blog post..The ultimate question

  • May 18, 2009 Srinivas Rao

    This is great. I had a friend tell me “true power is also the power to say no.” Over the last few weeks I’ve come to the realization that you can get there faster by going slower. And I keep seeing evidence of it over and over in my life. Just to share one example, I live in LA where traffic is horrible. But for some reason when I”m never in a rush, I always just breeze right through traffic.

  • May 18, 2009 Diana

    Once when I was young and overwhelmed with requests at work, I went to my boss and frankly asked him what to do. I had too many requests to complete in the time allowed. Many were urgent and unexpected. Young and naive, I assumed all the requests were commands that had to be obeyed. My boss (whose desk was overflowing with stacks of paper) pointed to his inbox. He said there will always be fires to put out and the inbox will always overflow. He said my task was only to deal with each thing that must be done NOW (for our manager for example) and leave the rest. Then he said that many requests were not as important as the requestor believed and will sink to the bottom of the pile, and rightly so.

    He actually said that many things do not need to be done, will not get done, and should not be done! What an eye opener that was for me. I adopted his philosophy. It didn’t make me popular with my coworkers, but I know I got the job done that my boss expected of me, for 18 years.

  • May 18, 2009 Liz


    I coach moms and if there was ever a group that needed to hear this- it’s them/us!

    When I teach this concept to moms, I remind them that yes and no are really two sides of the same coin. Whenever we say ‘yes’ to one thing, we’re necessarily saying ‘no’ to a bunch of other things at the same time. And whenever we say ‘no’ we’re making room for ‘yes’ to something else.

    The bottom line question is, “What do you want to be saying ‘yes’ to? When you know the answer to that question, the ‘no’ is a lot easer to deliver.

    Liz’s last blog post..Do-Overs and High Fives: Whoosh… Crunch!

  • May 19, 2009 Catherine Cantieri, Sorted

    Dude! This problem reared its head in my life recently–which is ironic since I’m a productivity coach. My mentor says “we teach what we need to learn,” and I’m finally understanding what she means by that. This–”After all, it’s a really cool project. And it’ll be a great networking opportunity. And I’m sure I could squeeze it in.”– is exactly what I think when I take on more than I can reasonably handle. And my chest had begun to feel like those trains in Japan.

    I’m starting to practice the art of “no.” The hardest part, as you noted, isn’t saying no, it’s convincing myself that I’ll be okay if I say no. I really like Liz’s point about a “no” being a “yes” to something else. Excellent post!

  • May 19, 2009 Deb Owen

    So true! So many people confuse anxiety (or just being busy) with being productive! (I used to be one of them. ;-) )

    All the best!

    Deb Owen’s last blog to succeed in business without being creative

  • May 19, 2009 Ltlshoesix

    Wow, I really needed to read this. I am constantly making goals for myself. The list starts to pile and pile and before I know it, it’s been 3 months and I have not done any of them. I get more stressed from it too. Thanks for putting this in perspective. I recently started to work with a business coach and am hoping to really change things for myself and my business. I appreciate your blog. Thanks!

  • May 27, 2009 celebrity imre

    so in other words, just say no to everything and you’ll be all set. Do you want to help me move some things. hmmm, “NO”. Do you want to write great songs again, “NO” Do you want to work “NO” . Do you want to eat “NO”

    I see, so in the end you’ll do what you really want to do, NOTHING! Dave apparently has a lot of time and can say no to alot of it. Most people can’t just say NO to everyone or everything. Because in the end you will have no family, friends, or work. Dave has millions, so it’s easy to just NO NO NO NO!!!!!!!!!

    Come on Dave!!! When I take you in the ring, are you going to say NO?

  • May 27, 2009 Dave Navarro

    All –

    Great comments, haven’t had a chance to respond, but thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    (Except for that last one, written by someone who a) apparently didn’t actually read the article and b) seems to think I’m the rich and famous guitarist – LOL!)

  • Jun 3, 2009 Dolores Diz

    Saying no is hard. But it helps a lot when you think that behind each YES you say there’s a lot of hidden NOs. So my trick is this: when you say yes, try to take a deep look and discover the No you are saying to sustain this YES. And when you see them, you’ll see the real price of your yes. Thank for the post

Comments are closed.