Yesaholics Anonymous: On the Road to Recovery
May 11, 2015
Hi, my name is Jacob.
I’m a yesaholic.
As of today, though, it’s been 21 days since I last said “yes” to anyone…
Okay, so that last part isn’t exactly true, but I am one of the millions of Americans who suffer from this condition. Let’s take a look at how yesaholism is defined:
Now, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with saying “yes,” but when your agreeability starts to affect your ability to live a normal and healthy life, that’s when you know you have a problem.
For me, my yesaholism began a few years ago when I started Disruptive Advertising. In the early phases of a startup, you’re scrambling just to get your revenue stream going. You literally can’t afford to say “no”.
Well, do something enough times and it becomes a habit. Long after Disruptive had moved from bootstrap to comfortably profitable, I found myself agreeing to things without even thinking about it. To make matters worse, I was afraid of what would happen if I said “no”.
I had become a yesaholic.
The Psychology of Yesaholism
Anytime we say “no” we risk losing something. Say “no” to a client or customer and you might lose their business. Say “no” to a coworker and you risk losing face. Say “no” to your spouse…you get the idea.
No one likes the idea of losing or being embarrassed, so we often say “yes” when we would really be better off saying “no”. Lo and behold, another yesaholic is born.
To make matters worse, we praise the yesaholics of the world for their can-do attitude and productivity. After all, they are the ones we can count on to get things done, right?
Unfortunately, the more a yesaholic says “yes”, the more ineffective they become. Inebriated with commitment, even simple tasks become difficult and, just like alcoholics, the addiction begins to affect every aspect of their lives.
Wondering if you or someone you know has become a yesaholic? Consider the following questions:
- Are you regularly working late hours to stay caught up?
- When was the last time your inbox was completely clean?
- Does your calendar give you room to breathe?
- Do you feel guilty about the amount of time you spend with your family?
- Are you exercising as often as you think you should?
- How did you respond the last time someone asked, “How are you doing?” Did you jump into how crazy your life is as though it were a badge of honor?
If one or more of these questions struck a chord, you might have a problem. However, there is hope! Let me share 5 principles that have helped me on the road to recovery. I’m not there yet, but hey, 21 days is better than nothing…
1. Saying “yes” is saying “no”
Whenever you say “yes” to one thing, you are effectively saying “no” to something else. Economists refer to this as opportunity cost—if you spend time on one thing, you are not spending it on something else. While we might not consciously recognize this hidden exchange, the following are ways we try to manage the opportunity costs of yesaholism.
1. Giving up sleep.
For many of us, we first try to compensate for our addiction by giving up sleep. After all, sleep is for the lazy and ambitionless, right? Actually, it turns out that sleep is really for the healthy and productive. You might feel like you are getting more done, but in reality you are spending more time doing less and doing it poorly.
In addition, routinely sleeping less than 7 hours a night increases the risk of developing numerous health conditions and shortens your life expectancy!
In other words, yesaholism kills…
2. Time with loved ones.
Time with loved ones is often another easy sacrifice to make. The risk of losing friends and family is lower than the risk of upsetting a client, so we put short-term commitments before long-term relationships. The problem is, while those closest to us can handle the occasional disappointment, yesaholism is a chronic condition.
Over time, saying “yes” to everyone but your loved ones leads to your loved ones saying “no” to you.
But there’s a way around opportunity cost…multitasking! We can just do everything at once! While this sounds ideal, in reality it doesn’t work. Multitasking has the same wonderful productivity effects as sleep deprivation and can permanently damage our ability to think and empathize.
Guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Since there’s no way around opportunity cost, you have to be deliberate about your choices—both what you choose to do and what you choose not to do. Saying “no” to the right things takes courage, but it can also allow you to accomplish things you never thought possible.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” —Warren Buffett
2. You can’t make everyone happy
Somehow, we feel like it’s our job to keep everyone happy all of the time. Saying “no” tends to make people unhappy, so we avoid it. The thing is, making everyone else’s happiness your responsibility is a surefire way make yourself unhappy.
That’s not to say that helping others is a bad thing. In fact, it can be one of the most fulfilling ways to use your time. But the only person’s happiness you can ultimately control is your own. Try to please to please the world and you are certain to fail.
Instead, consider the following:
1. Are you making the right people happy?
Saying “yes” to the wrong people tends to backfire. If you cancel dinner plans with your wife and stay at work late to finish that project you just told your client you’d have done tomorrow, that’s not likely to win you any points at home. It might make the client happy, but stressing about your wife’s frustration will take the edge off your productivity.
Combine distraction with the fatigue of working extra hours and you stand a good chance of being asked to redo the whole project anyways. That means your other projects will be behind now too.
Sure, you said “yes”, but everybody (including the client) would have been better off if you’d just said “no”. Put the right people first, and everything else will fall into place.
2 Are you making people happy for the right reasons?
If you say “yes” and can’t make good on it, you are handing someone short-term happiness in exchange for long-term misery. On the other hand, if you say “no” and do a great job on what you can commit to, you’ve hit on a formula for success.
Saying “no”—especially when it means you lose out on something—shows that you understand your limitations and are committed to providing value. In the long run, people are happier with honesty than false promises.
Choosing to make the right people happy for the right reasons simplifies things a lot. You still can’t control whether they accept your efforts, but your odds of success go way up. And when the important people in your life are happy, it’s pretty easy to be happy yourself.
3. Quality vs quantity
I used to take vacations so I could do fun things. I‘d bring my bucket list and try to cram everything into one trip. Success was measured by the number of checkmarks I made. But, by the time I was done, I needed a vacation from my vacation!
Now I determine the quality of my vacations differently. Instead of gauging success by how many thing I accomplished, I figure I had a good vacation if I got to sleep in, eat some great food and have one or two killer experiences. When I get back, I feel recharged and ready to go!
The same idea applies to deciding whether or not to say “yes”. Unless you’re Wal-Mart, people generally prefer quality over quantity. However, yesaholics seem to say, “look what I did” when the more important statement is, “look what I did well.”
Admittedly, sometimes a quantity of quality is what is needed, but that tends to come from focused effort rather than piecemeal commitment.
This is especially true when it comes to relationships. Relationships rise and fall with the amount of time invested in them, but a good portion of that time needs to be quality time. For example, I try to be a part of my kids’ lives every day, but I also schedule a daddy-daughter date with each of my daughters every month so we can have a real chance to connect. Although it takes time away from my busy schedule, it’s always time well spent.
So, how do you balance quantity and quality? In practical terms, breaking a quantity addiction is more than just putting the most important projects and activities first. You have to build buffer time into your schedule. If your calendar is wall-to-wall with appointments and to-do items, something is going to slip. Even if you manage to stay on top of things, your relationships will suffer.
Everything works better when you leave yourself a little room to breathe.
4. Get your priorities straight!
Ultimately, it all boils down to ordering your priorities and sticking to that order. If saying “yes” to a low priority request prevents you from succeeding on a high priority item, you’re probably better off saying “no”.
Although it sounds a little self-serving, you need to take care of yourself and your family first. After all, you aren’t much use to anyone if you are still hungover from your latest “yes” binge. In addition, your stress level literally affects the productivity, health and happiness of everyone around you.
So, the next time you feel inclined to complain about your coworkers, take a look at what you’re bringing to the table.
One way to start prioritizing is to ask yourself, what would I do if all my obligations were suddenly gone? Would I spend more time with the family? Read? Go hiking? Exercise more often? Identifying what leaves you feeling relaxed and fulfilled and making time for that on a weekly basis (at least) can be an effective way to stay emotionally centered.
Once you’ve figured out what you need, build your priority list up from there. If family or friends are the next most important thing, set time aside for that. If your job comes in third, decide how to fit that in with the other two…and so on.
Getting your priorities straight makes saying “no” a lot easier. With your real goals in sight, you can see how what you choose to do affects those goals, and, if you’ve correctly identified your priorities, you won’t want to agree to something that prevents you from succeeding on what really matters.
5. Learn to say “no” nicely
One of the biggest reasons it can be hard to say “no” is because we’re afraid to offend someone or let them down. For me, I don’t like to be the bad guy who makes life difficult for people.
The desire to help and accommodate is hardly a bad thing; however, learning to decline without being a jerk gives you the ability to say “yes” to all the right things.
Here are 3 ways to make “no” more palatable:
1. Set expectations.
Let people know in advance where and when you can help out. For example, if everyone at work knows watching your son’s baseball game on Friday afternoon is a top priority for you, most people won’t ask you to cover for them at that time. If they do end up asking, they’ll be more understanding when you say “no”.
2. Explain the situation.
Often, people don’t understand the opportunity cost of what they are asking. By explaining the situation, it often becomes obvious why the answer should be “no”. For example, “I’d be glad to get that done for you today, but that means I’ll have to finish project X tomorrow. Is that what you’d like me to do?”
Talk about turning the tables! By clarifying everyone’s priorities, you can identify what really needs to happen and pursue the right objective.
3. Be honest.
If you really are too busy to fit something in, just say so. People understand that you have a lot on your plate (most of them are probably yesaholics, too) and would prefer a “no” to shoddy work.
Even when you do everything you can to soften the blow, someone will eventually get offended. You have to be okay with that. Remember, making everyone happy isn’t your top priority.
Yesaholism is a pandemic that ruins lives. As a recovering yesaholic, I’ve seen first-hand the effects an addiction to “yes” can have.
Fortunately, you can recover. Once you learn to recognize the opportunity cost of saying “yes” and get your priorities straight, it becomes easier to recognize when and how to say “no”. Over time, you’ll start to discover that saying “no” can actually be one of the powerful ways for you to take control of your life.
21 days and counting…
You’ve heard my two cents, now I want to hear yours:
Note, this blog post is a repost of an article I originally posted on LinkedIn.