The art of never saying no
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When we talk about the idea of ‘time affluence’, we’re thinking of time as money. We talk about spending, saving and wasting time, as if it is something that we own.
I instinctively recoil at this, because it makes me think of the lunch-is-for-wimps attitude of a banker on the verge of burnout. But thinking of time in this way can sometimes be helpful.
For example, I like to think of ‘investing’ my time, rather than ‘spending’ it.
Time with friends is an investment in your relationships. Messing around with your kids is an investment in your family. Even doing nothing, or having a bath or going for a walk, is an investment in your general wellbeing. All of this helps me feel good about spending time in ways I might previously have considered a ‘waste’ of time.
Some things are a waste of your time, depending on what’s important to you. For instance, some people find scrolling through Instagram an enjoyable way to see what their friends are up to, with a side of interiors inspiration, whereas others find it leads to a compare-and-despair spiral. It’s about finding what is a good use of your time.
It’s one of the reasons that I love Marie Kondo’s recent book, Kurashi at Home: How to Organise Your Space and Achieve Your Ideal Life, because it takes her ‘spark joy’ method for decluttering your wardrobe and applies it to how you spend your time. (For KonMari ultras like me, she’s also just published an accompanying journal, The Marie Kondo Tidying Companion: A Planner to Spark Joy and Organise Your Life.)
Anyway, having some kind of structure - as advised by Marie Kondo - certainly helps me, as a freelance writer who is in charge of my own time. The unique joy/pain of managing your time when self-employed is summed up so beautifully in Hattie Crisell’s recent newsletter on procrastination (which I read while procrastinating).
To be clear, when I talk about taking control of my time, I’m not talking about super-productivity. I want to spend less time frittering my life away on things I don’t love doing, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to spend all of that saved time working, or exercising, or forcing myself to do something that’s ‘good’ for me. I might spend it lying on the sofa watching a romcom, if that’s what feels good.
This idea of having time to spend is also helpful when it comes to behaviour change. If I’m craving something that I’m trying not to have (alcohol, sugar, doomscrolling) then I tell myself that there is all the time in the world to do that in the future if I want to but, for now, something else is the priority. That way, I’m not actually saying ‘no’ to anything.
The word ‘no’ is miserable - depressing, oppressive, negative - and I avoid it when I can. Of course, there are times when it’s perfectly appropriate to say no. To that work commission that sounds fun but, actually, you know you don’t have time. To that social occasion that you don’t want to go to (don’t say you’ll ‘try and make it’, just say no). To that persistent-but-creepy man. If I could give one piece of advice to 20something me it would be: stop being circuitous and apologetic. Just. Say. No.
But, on a day-to-day basis, I try to avoid saying a direct ‘no’, particularly with my kids. In any situation where the answer is ‘no’, I try my best to reframe it as a ‘yes’.
‘Can I play Mario Kart?’
‘Yes, at the weekend when we’ve got more time.’
‘Can I have an ice-cream?’
‘Yes, when it’s a hot day.’
‘Can I have Instagram?’
‘Yes, when you’re 16.’
Try it: it’s more effective than you might think. And this is how I use this technique on myself when I’m trying to make healthier choices…
‘I want to go to the shop for a Tony’s Chocolonely.’
‘You can, just reply to two of those work emails first.’
‘I’m going to lie here and stare gormlessly at Instagram.’
‘OK, but have a bath first, then see how you feel.’
‘I want a glass of wine with this meal.’
‘Then have one, but after you’ve had a kombucha.’
If I’m still craving whatever it is after I’ve distracted myself first then, fine, I can have it. But nine times out of ten, I no longer feel the need.
In my Dry January WhatsApp group, we’ve been talking about how total abstinence can feel scary or depressing, and how the 99% sober movement is quite appealing. It means you’re basically alcohol-free but not ruling out, say, a glass of champagne at a wedding. It’s the ultimate example of never saying no, and one I’m going to stick with this year.
You might be reading this thinking: hang on, I don’t have all the time in the world, none of us does. Life is short, so I want to eat the chocolate/drink the booze.
It’s true, life is short. But are those the things that honestly bring you joy? If they are, then go for it, but do take time to consider what genuinely makes you happy.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll very likely say it again, but Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks is the perfect guide to accepting that life is short, and letting go of the desire to do everything, while making sure you live in the best way that you can.
I’ll leave with you with the last few lines of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, which a good friend sent me recently:
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
This week I’m…
Enjoying madcap shenanigans with J-Lo in Shotgun Wedding
Romcoms are a January theme. I’m also loving What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Listening to the new Shania Twain. Let’s go girls!