Life is full of possibilities.
If you read any self-help book, any blog on entrepreneurship, any cornflakes packet, you will see that you have to trim down those possibilities. You cannot do everything. You cannot have it all. At least, not all at once.
And it’s hard work to figure out what to say yes to. At least it was for me.
I tend to think that other people’s ideas are better than mine, that they’ve thought it through more, that they know what’s going on more than I do.
So when someone asks me to do something, I tend to say yes.
But doing what everyone else tells you to do is exhausting. You just cannot fit it all in. At some point, some decisions have to be made. And as you are the only one living your specific life with your specific burdens and challenges and your specific energy levels, you are the one that needs to make the decisions about what your life holds.
You know the analogy with the jar and the rocks, pebbles, sand, and water? I have always had trouble with that analogy. Putting sharp, angry rocks in a glass jar? What happens if you push too hard and the jar breaks? It took me a while to get past that but I saw a video the other day with some ping-pong balls instead of the rocks, beads instead of the pebbles, and then sand, and then beer. And that helped.
So, just in case you are one of the three people in the western world who have not heard this analogy, this is how it works:
The jar is your life. The ping-pong balls are the big things in your life. You need to put the ping-pong balls in first: family, friends, health care, time with God. The beads are the slightly smaller but still important things: your job, house, car, looking after those. The sand is everything else. The small stuff: surfing Facebook, watching TV, that sort of stuff. The beer is just to remind you that even if your life is full, you can still have a beer with friends (I’m not so sure about that last part, I’ve definitely had times where life was so full that a beer with friends would have pushed me over the edge, but maybe that’s just me).
It took me a while to understand something about this whole example (and I may be the only one who has trouble with this) but the thing is not to just state that the important things are ping-pong balls, but to schedule time to allow these ping-pong ball things to happen. Not to just say to yourself, “family is one of my top priorities” but to actually map out in your calendar that four nights a week you are not doing anything other than spending time with your family, that Saturday afternoon is for a family car trip, and that Sunday all the family will be going to church and eating lunch together afterwards. Schedule time for the important things first, then put in time for the less important things, and let the sand take care of itself.
Ok, so this is a helpful place to start, but for me I still had difficulty with it – what are my ping-pong balls? What exactly are the important things?
I started on this saying no journey because of two things: I was sick and tired of always feeling sick and tired, and I had decided I wanted to make time to write. I needed to clear my schedule so that I could exercise, and make and eat healthy food, and rest, and I needed to clear my schedule so that I could follow my dream and write a book.
Now, cutting down my TV viewing, and my social media time was a good start. (Notice I didn’t say cutting out, just cutting down – some relaxation is important). But it wasn’t enough.
If I kept saying yes to party-plan parties, all the church activities, dinner with everyone, social events, work opportunities and so on, I would have neither the time nor the energy to write anything. I needed some way to divine what belonged in the ‘important’ category.
I made a mind-map. You can tell how serious this is by the fact that I made a mind-map. I hate them. Lists are my thing. But I tried a few lists and they didn’t quite work, so the mind-map seemed the way to go this time.
The segments of my mind-map were: Family, church, work, health, and writing. In each one of those segments I included the things I thought were important. My feeling was that if something didn’t fit into one of those segments then it was sand.
Here’s a new thing that I learned. In the Family section along with the cooking, washing, budgeting and shopping, I also included ‘emotional energy for my family’s needs’ and ‘Saturday adventures’. I realised that I needed to put down-time in the ping-pong ball section if I was to live the life I wanted.
The other thing for me was defining the writing as a section on its own. As its own collection of ping-pong balls.
Writing is my dream, and it is my ‘thing’. It took me a long time to figure that out. Just so as you know, I’m in my mid-forties now, and I think I may have finally found the thing I love to do. I have tried many different hobbies – art, craft, exercise, maths, science, music, dance – none of them filled the gap in my life the way that writing has done. I’m hopeful now that I have found the passion of my life.
I read this amazing book called The Art of Slow Writing Louise De Salvo that described the lives and loves of many different authors throughout history. As I read it I found that I related to oh, just about every category. I remember telling my friend that I wanted to write a book, but doesn’t everyone? She said no, not everyone wants to write a book, and that maybe I should give it a try.
So I did give it a try, and I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoy the process and I enjoy the outcome.
However, in my mind my writing can be less important that any other important thing that anyone else would want me to do. You see I don’t know that I am ever going to be a successful author. In order to become a writer, I need time to practice. Time to write books that will never be seen by another human being. Time to fail. Time to learn the craft. And I have had difficulty allowing myself that time because my (maybe never seen or used by another human being) stuff just didn’t seem as important as anyone else’s (already out there and doing good) stuff.
I needed to change that. To change my mindset.
I’ve found some books really helpful to me in letting me know that it was ok to follow my dream. One is The Best Yes by Lysa Terkeuerst. She does a wonderful job of explaining that there is a job that only you can do, and that you should spend your time doing it. That it is right to say no to some opportunities if it stops you from doing the one thing that you should be doing.
Jon Acuff in his book Quitter says that if you figure out what your dream is, then you will spend less time doing the things you like, and more doing the things you love. I really like the idea of filling my life with things I love, things that I am meant to do. The idea of me giving to the world a gift that only I can give, living a life with meaning and purpose.
When you have that shining orb in front of you, that reason for living, then it is easier to throw off those things that ‘hinder and so easily entangle’ and to ‘run with perseverance the race set before you’. To run my own race. To reach my own goal. To give the thing I give the best. To live my best life. For all of that, I needed to learn to say no. Otherwise I am like a ‘wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind’ insecure, unsure, exhausted, and going nowhere.
The good book says, “each of you should carry your own load”. God has given you a load to carry. He has made you “to do good works which He planned beforehand for you to do”. It’s worth asking Him what he made you to do, thinking it through, finding out what your special shiny ping-pong ball is.
So, step one towards saying no: figure out what you’re saying yes to. Know your dream. Write your vision statement.
I have learned that dreams and goals are different. Where a goal is a short term, achievable stepping stone towards your dream, your dream, according to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, is a big, unachievable, shining city on a hill that you are moving towards. A dream gives you purpose. Jenny Baxter agrees. She says in her blog Treasuring Mothers that your dream needs to be big enough that you can’t achieve it on your own. You need a dream that is big enough that you are dependent on God to come through for you to make it happen. Your dream is your hope and purpose – the thing God put you on the earth to accomplish.
That’s the thing that will allow you to say no, and help you figure out when to say yes. Cherish your dream, value it, invest in it, give it your all. And make sure that you don’t let all the sand eat away the time that belongs to the ping-pong ball of your dream.
Have you found out what your shiny ping-pong ball is? Do you agree that knowing what to say yes to is the first step to saying no? Have any of you lovely readers ever tried applying the ping-pong ball method to your lives? How did it go?
This post is part of a series I am writing about what I have learned about saying no. I’d love to have you join me on this journey. If you want to make sure you never miss a post, you can sign up on WordPress and the post will be sent to your email address every week without fail.
You’ll notice some special art in this series. If you want to see more of it you can find the artist on instagram @deteor42
If you would like to hear more about my writing journey as it comes to the pointy end with my first novel (a cosy mystery), please drop me a line on firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll add you to my newsletter list. The newsletters are more writing focussed – what I’m doing with my writing, and what I’m reading myself. I look forward to hearing from you.