Saying No

People talk a big game about about how they want their life to be more “balanced.” They wish they had more time. They always feel tired, stressed, or overwhelmed. They don’t sleep enough. Finances are tight. They don’t see friends as much as they’d like, etc… Actually, I feel like this an awful lot of the time, and I’m starting to realize that it often comes down to one thing:

    I have limited time, money, and energy, but I act like I don’t.

I pretend I have unlimited time when I stay up late instead of going to sleep. I act like I have money to burn when I go out for dinner with perfectly good food in the fridge. I imagine that I am a machine and not a human being when I schedule friends, work, errands, and out-of-town trips back to back for two weeks solid.

I originally drafted a very long post that dug into each of those three resources – time, money, and energy. I discussed how to quantify them and leverage excess amounts of one to make up for a deficiency of another. I had a long lecture with a bunch of math in which I concluded that you get about 40 hours of disposable time a week after doing the bare minimum of sleeping, eating, and working a full-time job, so you should use your time accordingly. But after writing lots of what amounted to pretty obvious “life-hacking” tips, I realized that it’s pretty much all about saying “no.”

Some of us, some of the time, are good at saying “no” to spending money when we can’t afford it. That is basic financial responsibility, and it’s generally understood that you shouldn’t be allowed to be an adult until you possess it. What very few of us are good at is saying “no” to spending time and energy when we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, almost every adult I know – including myself sometimes – is not only pretty awful at this, but doesn’t even consider it an important skill.

Imagine a friend invites you along on a weekend trip to New York. You are short on money lately, and Manhattan is an expensive place to visit. It’s hard, but you have to say no. You say “I wish I could, but I just can’t afford it.” Your friend does not argue that you technically could make it happen – by borrowing the money, skipping paying your bills this month, or acquiring some credit card debt. That would be extremely stupid and not worth it, and both you and your friend know it.

Now imagine the same situation with one difference: you have money to spare, but you have been very worn out lately and not getting much sleep. Do you tell your friend “I’m sorry, I’m just not up to it. I don’t have the time or the energy?” Even if we do, I think most of the time our friend attempts to convince us (and does not have a hard time doing so) that we could totally make it work. We agree to the weekend trip and – without really thinking about it or meaning to – decide that we will just do all the sleeping, resting, housework, shopping, errands, seeing friends, and everything else we would have done and need to do that weekend “some other time.” We don’t figure out where that time is going to magically come from. And we don’t consider that we will be even more worn out after a couple nights in the big city and not up to hitting the ground running on Monday to make up for lost time.

We make ruinous, bankrupting decisions with our time and energy while carefully stewarding our money. We even save up money for unforeseen needs, but have you ever “saved up” time or energy? I usually spend mine as soon as I get it – and then spend some more that I don’t have. We are so careful with money, which can buy goods and services, but utterly frivolous with the resources we need to function as decent, effective, creative, and loving human beings. Being short on money may impact my credit rating, but being short on energy impacts my marriage and being short on time impacts my friendships. I can love my daughter and be an encouraging co-worker with $0 in the bank, but when I am sleep deprived and burnt out I can’t do either of those things no matter how much cash I have on hand.

If God wanted us to have more hours in a day or require less sleep, he would have built humans or the world differently. He didn’t. We need to learn to say “no” wisely and without guilt. Only when we do so are we able to say “yes” to the things that matter most.

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