When to Say Yes, How to Say No

Stephen Hussey

My friend from Germany calls me on the phone, his accent as jaunty and upbeat as ever, “Hello Steve my man!”

“Hey Julian!”

“I’m over in London for 24 hours tomorrow. So am I gonna see you?”

The way he says this always makes me laugh. I can hear the excitement in his voice.

“Well… I have a deadline end of this week. But yea, why not? Lunch somewhere?”


I know. It all sounds pretty ordinary. But I used to be terrible at this sort of thing, by which I mean juggling work and play.


If I had a deadline, for my PhD, for a book, for a creative project, I would go into ‘cave mode’, shutting off just about everything in my life, almost as a masochistic self-inflicted punishment, like I had to pay my penance and live in isolation like a Jesuit monk in order to get anything done.

It took the better part of my twenties to realise that this was no way to live.

The Secret To Productivity – Don’t Sacrifice Meaning, Sacrifice Junk

Of course, as I write this, I’m also torn. Because I know it’s impossible and naïve to think you can do it all.

Sacrifice lets you focus. It’s what will make someone able to climb mountains, make movies, start companies – all those accomplishments people want to add to their name one day.

But there are good and bad sacrifices.

There’s what I call “sacrificing junk” and then there’s what I call “sacrificing meaning.”

Sacrificing Junk ✓

This is the one you really want to do.

Sacrificing junk will free up room in your life for the things that actually matter.

Junk includes:

  • Lounging on a friends couch drinking beer and watching crap TV because you’re both bored.
  • Scrolling through YouTube videos you don’t even want to watch as a form of procrastination.
  • Spending hours complaining to people, trading life problems and bemoaning the state of the world.
  • Mindless shopping.
  • Going to that party you hate just to “show your face”, or to avoid FOMO.

Get rid of these, and you’ll feel 100% better, happier, and instantly more productive.

Suddenly your calendar will have space for you to read more books, get more done, and spend time on activities that actually bring you happiness.

Sacrificing Meaning (X)

This is the BIG MISTAKE.

If you’re an over-achiever or what they call a “Type-A” personality, it’s likely you’ve strayed into sacrificing things that may have brought a true sense of meaning and fulfilment to your life.

These are the things like:

  • That trip abroad with your best friends that is TOTALLY worth carving out a week in your calendar for.
  • That spontaneous night out at the cool new club that will make you tired tomorrow but is something that’s unlikely to happen again soon.
  • That day you have lunch with a treasured friend from abroad who’s only in town for 24 hours (see above).
  • That family get-together that you know will feed your soul and make you feel good.

These are the experiences that are unique, that bring you true joy, and that add colour and memories in your life. Not to get dramatic about it, but I’m convinced these are the things people wish they had done more of on their deathbeds. Sacrificing meaning is a big mistake that you feel later on down the road. Often they are experiences we can’t get back.

Junk is the clutter that wastes our time. Meaning is the juice that we should save our time for.

How To KNOW if it’s Meaning Or Junk – 3 Easy Questions

What things should you say “no” to? 

I would say, “listen to your gut”, but since I’m overly analytical, I’ve also devised three easy questions to ask yourself if you want to know whether it’s MEANING or JUNK you’re giving up:

  1.   Is this a unique experience or activity I truly enjoy?
  2.   Is it time spent with someone who brings me joy and happiness?
  3.   Is it likely to happen again anytime soon?

If you can say yes to at least two of these, it’s probably worth finding time for in your schedule, even if you have to give up that extra bit of progress on a difficult project.

So here’s my new formula: Say “NO” to time-wasting, but say “YES” to spending time on things that bring your life meaning.

Not all time has to be spent on work to be productive. If it’s meaningful, trust me, it’s worth the hours.

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13 Replies to “When to Say Yes, How to Say No”

  • Dear Stephen, this post is SO IMPORTANT to me, because I’m that kind of person who cannot say NO easy to friends, work tasks etc…so I really need a help on listing junks and meanings in my daily schedule. Sometimes I would like to put me in a “cave mode”, but then I have the feeling that I could miss something important…So thank you to share with us these simple tips on how to understand what it’s worthy and what’s not!

  • VERY Nice Stephen, Mucho Gracias I Love it!!

    Beautiful BEAUTIFUL Formula, It Makes So Much Sense..

  • Well I don’t understand the logic of the third question “Is it likely to happen again anytime soon?” If you answer this question with “yes”, this contribites to the fact, that it’s trash and not meaning. Why should you shift your schedule and sacrifice your progress for something you might do as well one week later?

    1. Doesn’t mean that it is trash with no meaning, it just means that making room for a beer crawl in the middle of the week with your regular drinking buddy could be scheduled for the week after you are done with your deadline..

  • Stephen, thank you!!! I just screwed up a relationship in the past by doing what you warn against here! Thanks for this and putting it so beautifully. Will not be a mistake I will repeat again!

  • I went abroad myself lately, and went to 3 different places where I used to live. I have friends and family all places, but I was only gonna stay a few days at each place.

    Beforehand I didn’t mention to a lot of people I was going to all of the places, and I only took contact with the people I really wanted to meet the same day I went there. I didn’t want to plan too much beforehand, and rather just see who would have time to catch up, and just take it from there. I ended up meeting almost everyone I wanted to meet, and had a really fun and spontaneous trip. For some reason I thought people might be angry/disappointed for me not letting them know sooner, but it seemed that also my friends was happy that I wanted to fill them in on my short time in each place.

    I think it is important to use your time wisely, and on the people you truly love and care for. For example I didn’t want to post in my newsfeed on FB where I was going, or when I was going to be there, because I didn’t want people I really didn’t want to meet to get in touch with me, and thus feel obligated to use time on them rather than the ones I really wanted to meet.

  • Um, #1 is an either-or question so you’re gonna say “yes” to it, probably.

    A tip I learned from a book on Procrastination is to plan your fun first. Sounds counter-intuitive (and sometimes we all need to be spontaneous) but when we PLAN space for fun, we’re usually more focused in our time for work. Rather than turning down invites because we gotta “write that book” or whatever project we’re letting consume us and end up procrastinating on with the mindless activity because we never gave ourselves a real break.

  • I wonder if #3 should be “unlikely” to happen again soon implying that this is a precious moment that won’t happen so you should go do it.

  • Stephen, thank you so much for writing this entry!! As someone who is working on her PhD, I am in what feels like a constant, Sysiphean battle with having enough time. Your words about the junk vs. meaning dichotomy are very encouraging and I absolutely will keep them in mind as encouragement. I have gotten better about taking advantage of the meaningful opportunities, but some how am having trouble escaping the junk. So, thank you! I think your words were EXACTLY what I needed to read to get to a place of increased productivity AND happiness!

    Thanks for making my day!

    ps. Jesuits aren’t a monastic order ;)

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