The Single Principle You Must Practice When Feeling Overwhelmed or Burned Out
Years ago I got divorced and went from married suburbanite to urban bachelor in the span of a few weeks. Talk about a bumpy landing. I didn’t have any friends, family, or social support downtown, so it took me time to develop a new two-word philosophy to rattle myself out of the wallowing.
What was the two-word philosophy?
To anything, anytime, with anyone. Say yes. Simple as that.
I don’t regret that philosophy. It brought me opportunities and human connections that I would have never had otherwise. But for everything I gained, I also paid the price on productivity. The more you’re given a chance to do, and then actually do, of course the less time you have to do it all.
So this article shares how I knew it was time to rein it in and the method I use to keep everything in balance today. It’s a great principle if you’re struggling with any form of overwhelm, burnout, or just feeling like there’s always too much to do.
THE (LIMITED) VIRTUES OF “YES”
Defaulting to yes actually worked well for me in those first few years.
I went to charity events for organizations I’d never heard of before, I was the guy at the concert who doesn’t know the songs but buys the album anyway, and I often had some random internet friend crashing on my couch.
Of course, I also had lots of nights that didn’t end well. Stutter stops, terrible blind dates, cold lonely walks home from some get-together that didn’t go anywhere. But I also said yes to doing a TED Talk that became one of the world’s most inspiring and said yes to writing a bunch of short blog posts for myself which ultimately turned into The Book of Awesome and sold a million copies.
And then, over time, I suddenly had more options, more choices, and more invitations than I could possibly accept. This transition happens to many of us. You go from parent of one kid to parent of three. You say yes to the community board and suddenly three more boards ask you to join. You score a promotion at work and then inherit a big team of 10 people to manage.
You look back and realize that you said yes to more — more meetings, more opportunities, more challenges. Your life accelerated. But then you hit a point where you suddenly have too much to do.
Welcome to the World of Overwhelm.
“HELL YEAH!” VERSUS EVERYTHING ELSE
My friend Derek Sivers has a great philosophy that I’ve adopted and want to share with you. It’s called, “No or hell yeah!” and it’s really quite simple. Here’s how it works: You receive an invitation to do something (a date, a job, a social event, whatever), then take a minute to observe your authentic reaction — which is invariably either one of two things:
- A super emphatic, fist-pumping, “Hell yeah!” where you’re just shaking with excitement to do it — in which case you do it, or
- Literally anything else at all — in which case you don’t.
The beauty of this model is that it filters every other positive reaction into a no: “Um, sounds good!”, “Lemme check my calendar, I think I’m open,” or the dreaded, “Can I get back to you?”
No, no, all no!
Those are lukewarm reactions that remain positive until just before you get to the commitment and realize you wish you’d said no instead. Maybe you even bail last-minute, which destroys trust and hurts your reputation. It’s much easier to simply filter your options through the “No or Hell Yeah” model up front, to make sure you’re only committing to things you really want to do.
GREAT IS THE ENEMY OF LIFE CHANGING
What’s the benefit?
You don’t kill those invisible opportunities you haven’t dreamt up yet — those big projects you need time to dive into, and all the downtime your mind needs to create space for what matters.
I knew it was time to switch from “say yes” to “no or hell yeah!” when I looked at my calendar and realized I was swamped, morning to night, on things I really enjoyed doing but — and here’s the crucial part — only some of which I loved so much as to call life changing. If “good” is the enemy of great, then “great” is the enemy of “life changing.”
Why does it need to be life changing? Simple. Life is short. We have on average 30,000 days here total. It’s over in a blink! There are already loads of options and obligations you simply can’t say no to because they’re part of your work or family responsibilities. And that’s fine. But that often leaves precious little room for your personal and social commitments, which makes it all the more important to set a really high bar for those. When you do, you’ll free up time to focus on what you care deeply about. And the benefit of doing that will start leaking into your work and family life, too.
Now, I’ll be honest. Though it sounds great on paper, making this transition wasn’t easy for me. It was actually downright painful. And it continues to be. It’s not just saying no to a lunch meeting so you can write a book chapter. That’s the easy stuff! It also includes missing a family dinner because I’m off interviewing David Sedaris for my podcast. These hurt — deeply. It’s incredibly hard saying no to friends, fun projects, and fly-away ideas. Plus, sometimes you find yourself just staring in horror as a brand-new relationship you know would take off if you had time to put into it just sputters and dies because of zero water or sunlight.
No need to pretend that’s easy. It’s frankly a horrible feeling.
But the alternative?
Well, those giant regrets haunting you later in life — that maybe you could’ve tackled your dream job, that perhaps you should’ve done something that felt more meaningful — those are harder to brush away than any obligations cluttering your calendar next week or next month. Because plotted on a long enough timeline saying yes to everything doesn’t just tank your productivity, it also eats away at your sense of purpose.
And that’s actually pretty easy to say no to, don’t you think?
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This article is adapted from my book The Happiness Equation
An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company