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A Technique for Deciding When to Say No

Instead of trying to do everything, figure out what deserves your time and energy

Tyler Kleeberger
Jan 31, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo: Alexandre Amaral / EyeEm / Getty Images

In a culture that tends toward the myth of no limits, acknowledging that we can’t do everything seems restrictive. Our industrial naïveté proudly proclaims that we have unlimited time, unlimited resources, and unlimited capacity. Our enlightened progress that emerged in modernism has told us that supply is infinite, demand is infinite, and we, too, are infinite.

The desire to escape death seems to have produced a culture that mythologically posits immortality.

But those who are honest about death, who have the humility to understand and to embrace our finitude, are those who just might live rightly in the world as it actually is.

Essentially, you can’t do everything—so what should you do? What are you going to focus on?

Despite our desire to be like gods, we might do better if we accept reality—that we have limits, that we can’t do everything, and, therefore, that we have to make decisions about how we are going to fill the only hands we have. Coming to terms with our own limitations can be difficult, but there are some concepts and techniques that can help us decide when to say “yes” and when to say “no.”

The law of two-thirds

In the world of business, the law of two-thirds offers criteria for decisions about what will define a product or organization. Essentially, you can’t do everything so what should you do? What are you going to focus on?

This concept, when approached with honesty about our limitedness, identifies three primary elements that are instrumental in the success of a business:

  • Quality

In determining what to say ‘yes’ to, you’ve also decided what to say ‘no’ to.

You must consider all three, but you can only choose two. For example, a restaurant wants to have quality and it wants to be fast? Then it is going to be more expensive. A business desires low prices, but also wants to maintain quality? Speed is going to be reduced. You want something that is fast and cheap? Quality will certainly be affected.

In determining what to say “yes” to, you’ve also decided what to say “no” to. It is simply impossible to do all three equally well. If you attempt to be everything, do everything, and choose all the options, you will, in effect, fail to be or do any of them.

The myth of juggling

Our propagation of infinitude—the mythology that we can do everything at once—is often accepted without question because it exists in the realm of the abstract. Let’s make it tactile with a physical example: juggling.

Your body is limited in capability, takes up a limited amount of space, and has a limited number of parts. A juggler, for example, usually only has two hands (though I have seen people juggle with fewer hands or just feet). Juggling requires a person to use the body’s limited parts to control many things at once. While multiple objects may be tossed into the air, only a certain number can be held (and therefore focused on) at a given moment.

Our lives can be compared to juggling. We believe that by learning to juggle a seemingly infinite number of objects, we become unlimited in our capacity. But the reality is that you can only focus on a limited number of things at once. We praise a culture of jugglers, but we fail to acknowledge that while objects may be flying around in the air, we are only really “holding” what the limited body is capable of holding.

In pursuit of juggling more and more, we end up never really holding anything. An object, a relationship, a focus, or a commitment sits in your palm for only a brief second before it evaporates from your care and is replaced by the next thing. You may be in control of all the objects, but you never actually focus on any of them.

Gardening offers another good analogy. If you are growing a plant from seed, the cautious approach—one that increases your chances of a plant ensuing from the germination process—is to plant multiple seeds together. Once you plant them, chances are high that at least a couple will sprout.

The problem we face, in the reality of the physical limits of a plant, is that if you try to grow multiple seedlings crammed next to each other, none of them will grow to their potential. They will fight for space, nutrients, light, and water. Instead of one fully functioning and healthy plant, you will have both plants, but they will both be diminished, malnourished, and stunted.

In trying to have it all, you end up with nothing.

In trying to be unlimited, you fail to achieve what you wanted from the seeds in the first place.

The human propensity to try to be everything and do everything actually circumvents that desire because we end up not fully doing anything.

If you want that plant to grow, you need to get rid of the other seedlings. You have to choose your priorities.

A standard for living

In order to discern priorities, it might be helpful to first discern what determines your priorities—the standard that informs how you choose what you choose.

These ideals can change over time. In our youth, for example, we may pursue things that we regret as we grow older. But the cliché that you only have one life, only get to do this once, offers wisdom that ought to be considered. Essentially, what do you want to die with?

What I’ve found is that naming your standard—naming that which you want your identity to be grounded in—immediately makes some things irrelevant. If your standard is cultural success and the heroism of modern achievement, then that will determine what you are going to say yes to. If your standard is health, love, and meaningful relationships, a certain set of priorities will be nonnegotiable. If you don’t define a standard for yourself, you will default to whatever is most accessible. And we usually don’t naturally drift toward our true desires—we only fulfill them by intentionally being aware of them.

We usually don’t naturally drift toward our true desires — we only fulfill them by intentionally being aware of them.

Using the law of two-thirds, the business world has named three helpful standards in speed, quality, and price. A business has to make decisions about these standards, which then define its priorities. The standards determine the business’s identity.

While quality, speed, and price might not be as relevant to us as individuals, we can still ask: What do I want to die with? What standards should I prioritize with my limited time and capacity?

This is an important question because it will determine your “yes”—and, by default, what you say no to.

When to say yes

In reference to your life, the law of two-thirds is actually about being busy.

The same that is true of businesses, gardening, and juggling is true of our schedules and priorities. Our culture runs on the treadmill of constant productivity—we praise the efficient worker and the person who, in apparent humility, talks about being so overwhelmed. The fast, chaotic schedule is noble in our society, but it might also be absurd. In life and in business, when we try to do multiple things, we never actually do any of them.

Being busy, then, might just mean a lack of priorities.

It takes humility, strength, and fortitude to acknowledge your limits.

Weak, naïve, and disingenuous is the person who wants to appear as if they can do all while not actually engaging wholeheartedly with anything.

When you are a part of 18 organizations, and you work two jobs with endless responsibilities, and you also are an avid duck-racing enthusiast on the side, and you volunteer your time to a local charity, while also attempting to read a book a week and be available to help your friends with projects—not to mention that maybe parenting and marriage are a part of the equation as well… you won’t be able to do any of these things to their full potential.

There is room to argue that some people, such as single parents, simply have to take on more. But, even in this case, it remains true that this person has many priorities, yet limited hours and energy.

The question then isn’t, “How am I going to do all of these things?” (You will never be able to fully do all of them.) The question is, “Which ones am I actually going to do?”

When nothing is enough, you give yourself permission to feel as if you are accomplishing much. You get to enjoy the highlight film of life that our culture promotes as the successful soul. But it might actually be giving yourself permission to never have to do any of it.

I have yet to meet someone who has accomplished everything under the sun and proudly proclaims it was worth it.

I wonder if the Christian tradition was right in claiming that the achievement of gaining the whole world will cause you to lose your soul. Maybe it could be said that in choosing to have it all, you are choosing to never actually live. I also wonder if some of us would prefer this—being a cultural hero without any of the drudgery of investing in anything deeply, getting to feel as if we have defied death and postured a sense of immortality.

Maybe the seemingly heroic decision is actually the cheap, easy option. I have yet to meet someone who is both wildly successful by our rampant cultural standards and satisfied. I have yet to meet someone who has accomplished and juggled everything under the sun and proudly proclaims it was worth it.

I have, however, met folks who accomplished the heroic feat of growing both seedlings and mourned that they never enjoyed the fruit. I have met folks who experienced everything under the sun and concluded that it was all akin to vapor extinguishing the meaning from their lives. I have met people who walked away burned-out, empty, and yearning to have it all back.

I’ve also met the wise, seemingly provincial simpleton who is content—who holds the chosen objects well, who grew one plant and enjoyed its produce, and who embraced finitude and therefore life.

When we try to be so many places at once, we aren’t actually anywhere. When we try to hold everything, we end up holding nothing. When we try to do it all, despite what societal norms and cultural ideals tell us, we might actually be failing to do anything. We just might be buried with a full schedule, a list of accomplishments, and a futile attempt at immortality.

So what do we do?

We follow the example of a business wrestling with the law of two-thirds.

What are the things that you can do well and give your time to fully? What are the things that you can excel at by selectively focusing on them? What are you willing to compromise because it would spread you too thin, not allowing you to thrive in your chosen priorities?

I find it empowering that Jesus — who, independent of your religious convictions, seems to have done some pretty good things — also appears to have believed in focusing on a few priorities. There are accounts of Jesus being confronted by crowds or Israeli authorities questioning what he is doing — saying it isn’t right, or it isn’t enough according to their expectations. And how does Jesus respond? He moves on. He lets some things go. He has a few things to do and he does them. Not everything. A few things.

So what are the few things you will do?

In respect to your limited capabilities, what do you want? What standard is important to you? What goals do you want to be buried with once your life extinguishes into the universe like vapor and the water rushes the shore to devour whatever it is you built in the sand? When, as the Jewish book of Ecclesiastes says, the golden bowl of life breaks, what will you have held in that bowl?

We may want to heed the wise ancient voices that encouraged the meager life of a few things held poignantly in love.

This isn’t to say that you can’t have hobbies that aid rest, enjoyment, growth, and experience — or that you can’t, after determining what is necessary, take on a role that ensures life and health for those you love. But it is imperative that we name our intentional priorities and be content with them — and be willing to let go of what might be working against those priorities.

What do you want to hold in your hands? What is the plant you want to grow?

What seedlings might need to be pulled as a result?

If your time, energy, and resources are limited, what can you realistically invest in and be fully present with? If you could be great at only three things that reflect the standard you hope to take your last breath with, what would they be?

Say yes to those things.

And realize that it will mean saying no to other things.

Or, as Derek Sivers has made popular: “If it’s not a ‘hell yeah,’ it’s a no.”

Written by

I’m Exploring How to Become the Best Version of Humanity. Here’s what I’ve found so far @ tylerkleeberger.com [Becoming Human] | @TylerKleeberger — on Twitter.

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