A few years ago, I read the book Essentialism, the seminal tome on saying “no,” winnowing your commitments, and focusing only on what matters. It was life-changing. At the time, I was overwhelmed with commitments and obligations, many of them low-value items that I took on for no good reason other than they “sounded neat.” Essentialism met me in this overwhelm and introduced me to the power of the thoughtful “no” in cultivating a more focused, intentional life.
When I finished the book, I mercilessly slashed extraneous commitments from my schedule, leaving only work and family. I felt instant relief: at the time, I was dealing with unresolved anxiety, trying to grow a business, and settling into a new home. It wasn’t the right time for me to say “yes” to extraneous commitments.
But as the weeks passed and I basked in my delightfully minimalistic schedule, I started to notice a trend in popular media: the say-“no”-to-everything trend. I noticed it not just in self-help books and on blogs, but even in my personal life. I even had a friend tell me, over coffee, that she felt the need to pare down everything extraneous in her life, including time with friends. That smarted a bit, and it got me thinking: is saying “no” to every non-essential in our lives always healthy? Is it possible to fall into a trap of saying “no” simply for its own sake? To make a false idol out of white space, margin, and a clear schedule?
As we moved into 2020, and COVID-19 ravaged the world, we had no choice but to shut down all that was, well, extra in our lives. Suddenly, the just-say-“no” culture was foisted upon all of us, whether we liked it or not. And while the simple rhythm of work, home, rest, repeat was comforting at first, I eventually found myself yearning for something more.
This was my introduction to the value of the Thoughtful Yes.
Busy isn’t always bad
Taking Occam’s Razor to our lives and schedules isn’t always the key to happiness and success, and a countercultural tide has begun to question the boundaries-focused self-help culture.
In a podcast episode, author and happiness researcher Gretchen Rubin spoke of the value of making life “more complicated” and how that can actually make us happier in a culture that conditions us to simplify, streamline, and reduce. Rubin and her co-host were discussing specifically the concept of adopting a unique pet, but research supports the idea’s broader application: a 2010 article authored by Berkeley researchers confirms the countercultural idea that busy people tend to be happier. Specifically, the article references a study in which researchers asked college students to take multiple surveys about their institutions. After doing so, they could either deliver the completed survey to a dropbox right outside the room or walk to a location fifteen minutes away. No matter which option they chose, they were promised a candy bar when they returned the survey. More students chose the closer location, but the students who chose to walk fifteen minutes away reported feeling happier than the ones who selected the easier option.
This is a rudimentary example, but anecdotally, I’ve seen it take concrete form in my own life. My mom often remarks: “If you want a task done, give it to a busy person.” And frankly, when I observe the people in my life, I think she is right. My busiest friends also happen to be the ones who always have time for a coffee date or phone chat. And some of the most successful people I’ve known are the ones who not only lean fully into their callings as working women, mothers, or both, but also launch a side project, volunteer in their communities, or accept leadership roles—and they seem supremely happy doing it. Whether or not busier people are truly happier across the board, it seems that it’s certainly possible to build a life that is simultaneously full and fulfilling.
The Thoughtful Yes has changed my life in unforeseen ways, forcing me to consider whether boundaries may have a shadow side: while on the one hand, they can keep us safe, they can also shut out the world of community, connection, growth, and fulfillment. Recently, I’ve experimented with challenging the “automatic ‘no,’” even when the time commitment or effort required of something spooks me a bit. For instance, I recently accepted a role within a professional coaching organization. It requires a tremendous time commitment, but the relationships I’ve forged have already deeply affected my life and changed the trajectory of my business. It’s almost dizzying to think of all I would’ve missed had I let my knee-jerk, default reaction control.
Considering added value
Granted, I am not encouraging women far and wide to start loading their calendars with low-value activities. Rather, I believe that challenging our culture’s call to less, less, less can immeasurably impact our lives, careers, and relationships. This does not mean we need to flip our default switch from automatic “no” to automatic “yes.” Rather, it can serve us to simply pause to consider: what value will this opportunity add to my life?
Weighing the value of added commitments can take different forms for different people. It does not mean we need to take on a massive commitment; we can start small. For instance, we may “complicate our lives,” per Rubin, by scheduling a standing dinner invitation with your closest friends, or finally signing up to volunteer at the local animal shelter. It can mean joining a young professionals network in your area or, maybe, starting small by simply showing up to one of the happy hours to test the waters.
While it is important to maintain healthy boundaries, it is also worthwhile to thoroughly consider the value that that commitment can add to our lives. And while saying “no” may feel safe and certain, it may serve us to consider whether departing from safety and certainty—even in small ways—can unlock incredible potential, fulfillment, and joy.
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