Growth

The power of saying no to yourself

“You’re just going to have to say no more often.”

I was having lunch with a friend, who also happens to be the pastor at my church. We get together most Fridays to talk church business and to catch up on each others’ lives.

I told him that I feel relaxed. As relaxed as I get, anyway; I’m pretty high strung. But more relaxed than at any time I can remember in my adult life. The last time I remember being this relaxed was more than a quarter century ago, when I’d take a summer job after coming home from the stress and pressure of engineering school. Every summer’s job was different and interesting, but seldom difficult. I loved the change of pace, the experience of something new. I always went back to school refreshed and ready for another hard year.

This summer has felt much like that. After I lost a high-stress job on the first of June, I quickly landed a part-time consulting job advising a startup software company. I asked a lot of questions, soaked in their culture and methodology, worked alongside their programmers a little, and gave them a ton of advice from my experience about how to deliver quality software. It was fun!

Working part-time this summer let my life slow down, too, but I was surprised by how full it remained. I was just running at a peaceful pace, rather than full tilt. It has been wonderful!

Eight weeks have gone by, and now I’m refreshed and ready to return to full-time work. Fortunately, two good job offers landed this week, and I accepted one of them. I’ll be back to work the first week of August.

No Dumping

But I’m not ready to return to high stress. That’s why my friend advised me to say no: that little word really is the key to a satisfying and sane life.

But everything I’m involved in — work, family, church, the Historic Michigan Road Association, photography, this blog — are important to me. And while they make for a busy life, they also make for an interesting life. I’m not willing to let anything go.

So how do I say no without actually saying no? And then it hit me: how much of my former ridiculous pace was self-inflicted? What attitudes or tendencies do I have that lead me to push myself so hard?

Hint: I’m a classic overachiever. That’s what I can let go, or at least work at letting go. Here are some things I’m saying no to, effective immediately.

Say no to a tyrannical personal schedule. I felt like I had to keep perfectly on top of it all. I lived in fear of anything in my work and personal life going off the rails.

During and shortly after my crushingly stressful divorce, I lived in a constant crisis mode where even a small thing going wrong, like running out of milk or clean underwear, or not keeping up with cutting the grass, could snowball on me fast and mercilessly. It led me to keep an intricate and demanding personal schedule so everything is always handled.

It was tyranny. And this summer taught me that I’ve kept it up far beyond its usefulness. In the extra time I’ve had this summer, it’s been easy to adapt and respond to whatever has come. What peace it has brought! I want to hold onto that peace as much as I can.

I won’t return to such a tight schedule. It means things might go wrong sometimes, and I will have to adapt and respond to it. I might have to run to Walmart at 6:30 in the morning for milk for my son’s breakfast. I might have to pay someone to cut the grass, or take an afternoon off to cut it, or just let it grow long for a while. And I will just buy a lot of extra underwear.

No Smoking

Say no to my desire to knock every ball out of the park. At work, I always want to absolutely crush it. I find deep satisfaction in a job extremely well done. But it takes a lot of time, which leads to me packing too much into my days, which leads to a tyrannical schedule at work. No more. The added stress and reduced peace are not worth it. I’m going to figure out how good each task needs to be to meet its need, and stop there, even if it drives me a little crazy at first. I’ve said for years that I’m a recovering perfectionist. I’ll put that to the test when I go back to work.

Say no to situations and environments that aren’t a fit. The last year or so at my last company, I felt like I was constantly walking into strong headwinds. I saw future problems we were creating for ourselves, but was unable to get anyone to see them and therefore to buy into any ideas I had to prevent them. I even clashed a little with a few of my peers over it. I was never a great cultural fit there anyway, as it was a strong alpha-male culture and I’m generally more of a quiet collaborator.

But I kept leaning into the headwind, trying to adapt myself to the culture, trying to find new ways to advance my ideas. I might as well have pissed into that wind for all the good it did me. I was on a fast train to burnout.

I’ve had temporary rough patches in many workplaces. I can push through those. But if I feel like I never stop rolling the stone uphill, it is time to move on to a situation where I can have some success.

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20 thoughts on “The power of saying no to yourself

  1. This sounds like one of these things that most of us should do more of: taking stock of our lives to recognize some weaknesses, and then trying to do something about them. The second part is harder.

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  2. First of all, congrats and best wishes on the new job! One of the things that really struck me was when you asked how many things in our lives have we kept that have outlived their usefulness? That’s a super-good point, Jim. What in our lives really needs and deserves to be there? Build from here and enjoy your new job!

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  3. Congrats on the opening of a new adventure in your life. “No” can be a useful and appropriate response to others as well as to yourself. Learn how to use it judiciously, in that manner as well.

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  4. hmunro says:

    Congratulations on your new job, Jim! That’s wonderful news. But more importantly, congratulations on using this transition as an opportunity to take stock and focus on building a richer and happier life. You’ve set a great example here, and given me lots of food for thought.

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  5. N.S. Palmer says:

    Figuring out “how good each task needs to be to meet its need, and stop there” is the toughest challenge for someone who takes pride in his work, as I know you do.

    I can take that attitude for some tasks, but not others. With tasks that mean the most to me, I never feel that I’ve done them quite well enough.

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