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.


Eventually you realize you’re the common denominator in your problems

When something you don’t like happens to you over and over again, at some point you have to look hard at the part you play in it.

At the beginning of this year a larger company bought the company for which I work. Most acquisitions seem to be about neutralizing a competitor or reducing overall costs through layoffs, but this one was different. The company that bought us wanted our products and our people and treated the acquisition almost like a merger of equals. At about the same time I got a new boss, which would have happened merger or not. So on top of merger activities – new processes and systems, getting new computers, a switchover to the acquiring company’s computer networks and IT policies – we also embarked on a very aggressive project, and I had to figure out how to work for my new boss.

My office
The scene of my stress

The stress was intense. By the time the project ended in early August, I was teetering on the edge of burnout. My boss comped me an entire week off to recover, but it wasn’t enough. I’m still feeling aftereffects of the exhaustion, and am trying hard to get my head back into the game.

The thing is, I’ve been here over and over again. I took an inventory of just the last ten years and counted six times I’ve been exhausted like this, and some of those times have been for long periods. This has unintentionally become a theme on this blog; check out the stories here and here and here and here and here. I tended to finger external causes – it was the divorce, or a lousy project at work, or too many commitments. While external forces certainly played in these stressful times, I was overlooking the common denominator: me. As I took stock, here’s what I learned about myself.

  • I love to start new things. I am excited by a new venture’s potential and tend to say yes even when I’m already plenty busy. This is how I came to manage three separate departments and own a few side initiatives – the opportunities sounded exciting, so I said yes. I juggled these responsibilities well enough until the merger, when expectations and workloads spiked, and then I couldn’t handle it all.
  • I want to look like I can handle whatever is thrown at me. While all this was going on, my new boss wanted me to start several other side projects. I wanted her to see that I was in her corner so I took them on, but I was already behind the eight ball and this only made it worse. I ran frantically from meeting to meeting and watched my e-mail inbox fill faster than I could respond. People who worked for me could never get five minutes of my time.
  • I think that unless I’m killing myself, I’m not working hard enough. This has to come from my parents, because they both will work ridiculous overtime and go in even when they’re so sick they can hardly stand, as if their health and sanity is less important than their work. I’ve never been one to work overtime unless someone holds a gun to my head, but I multitask like a madman even though all the research says multitasking doesn’t work.
  • I am a perfectionist. Actually, I’m a recovering perfectionist. I know that what I consider to be my best work is often far more than what the situation calls for. But it still bothers me when I have to deliver less than my best. I had to do a lot of that just to survive this year, and it added to my stress.

I’ve finally had enough of this repeated exhaustion. In April, I asked my boss to narrow my responsibilities. She’s worked steadily on it and now I have a workload doable by a mortal man. Here are some things I’m working on so that I don’t wind up back in this mess again.

  • It’s time to learn to say no. My new mantra is, “I’d love to take that on, but something else has to come off my plate first.”
  • I have a new daily goal of not coming home from work feeling fried. This means I will pace myself every day, and this actually scares me. I’m afraid that if I don’t work ridiculously hard (or at least look like I’m working ridiculously hard) I’ll get bad reviews or end up fired. I’m going to face this fear head on. Logically I know that if I slow down it won’t result in unemployment, but I don’t feel it. But I’m already thinking about the extra energy I’ll have for my sons when I come home.
  • I will relax in the evenings. I feel like I need to work when I get home, too – cleaning, writing, cutting the grass, paying bills, or any number of other things. From now on, every evening will contain at least some time to read or watch TV or sit on the deck and watch the lousy golfers on the course behind my house hook balls into my back yard.
  • I’ve taken up meditation and yoga. The meditation helps me relax; continuing to practice it will help me cultivate staying present even when stress naturally occurs. The yoga is helping me accept my limitations – I’m unathletic and have terrible balance, and so many of the poses don’t come easily. But however well I can do the pose is inherently okay. And I find that without striving, over time the pose comes a little easier. Maybe life’s the same – stretch gently, listen to yourself for signs it’s time to stop, and try again next time to find you can stretch just a little bit farther than before.
Personal, Stories Told

Checking my barometer

A large barometer used to hang on the wall in my grandparents’ palatial retirement estate. Grandpa tried to explain to me how it told him when storms were coming, important when you lived in the country in a day before 24-hour TV weather channels, but it went over my young head. But after I grew up my dog helped me understand.

About ten years ago, my wife brought home a dog she found shivering in some bushes behind the Shell station around the corner. We already had two dogs and three cats, but because her heart knows no bottom for an animal in need, Gracie joined the menagerie.

One of my travel companions

Gracie showed signs of having been abused. We figured her abuser had been a man because she warmed right up to my wife but cringed if I as much as shifted in my easy chair and ran, tail tucked, when I stood up. As my wife and Sugar, our Rottweiler, helped her find her place in our home, her security increased, and she came to be considerably less skittish around me.


I got our dogs after the divorce, and Gracie had trouble making the transition. I had to leave her home alone all day while I worked, and she took to destroying things in my house while I was gone. When I was at my wits’ end, the vet said it was separation anxiety and prescribed a doggie antidepressant, which helped. But I could see she needed a lot of structure so she could know all was well. I started taking the dogs on daily walks, made more time to play with them in the yard, and implemented solid and consistent discipline. It was, and remains, a lot of work, but Gracie responded well and became fully my dog in the process.

Gracie’s security had just returned when Sugar died. I worried that Gracie would falter without her constant companion, but soon she stopped looking around the house for Sugar and instead just seemed thrilled to have me all to herself. But six weeks later Gracie just fell apart. She started destroying things in the house again when I was gone; when I was home, she followed me everywhere, whining and crying.

At first I thought that perhaps it sunk in that Sugar wasn’t coming home, but then I connected some dots. I’m a busy dude, often busier than I like to be. Not only was I mourning Sugar after she died, but I was super busy for several weeks afterward. I had let up on Gracie’s walks, stopped playing with her in the yard, and had relaxed the discipline. A couple weeks later, my own usual stress symptoms emerged: I was tired all the time, my shoulders and neck were stiff and sore, and I was becoming irritable. I could see that I hadn’t been getting to bed on time, I hadn’t been eating well, and I hadn’t been setting aside any quiet time.

I realized that I have a barometer, and her name is Gracie. She’s a very sensitive instrument who knows that I’m off my game well before I do. If I’m taking good care of her, then I’m taking good care of me, and we’re both happy. But every time she whines and cries when I come home and becomes jumpy, I always find that both of us need more attention. As soon as I give it to us, she rebounds, and I keep stress from piling up on me.