I was camped out at a table in my favorite cafe, pounding away at the keyboard.
For the previous six months, I had been working overtime — by choice. I had an idea for a product that could make people’s lives better, but I wasn’t quite ready to call it quits at my day job. So I spent my days writing code for one tech company, and my nights plotting out the vision for another.
“Hey, Aytekin,” a familiar voice greeted me, shaking me from my focus. I looked up: It was a colleague, holding a cappuccino. “I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’d help me out with a project I’m working on.”
Before I even answered, he pulled up a chair at my table, coffee in one hand and laptop in the other. My heart sunk: I liked this guy, and I truly wanted to help him out. Plus, his project sounded interesting, and my skill set was exactly what he needed.
So I lied.
“Yes, I can spare a few minutes,” I told my help-seeking colleague.
The truth was, I couldn’t really spare those few minutes. I didn’t have the time to share my focus or my creative energy on that Saturday afternoon, let alone in that part of my life. And I don’t think I’m the only one who doesn’t always set a boundary when it matters most.
In a 2013 study, researcher Vanessa Bohns discovered that saying “yes” when you really mean “no” is a common problem. When asked by an interviewer to deface a library book by writing the word “pickle” in pen, more than half of the research subjects agreed.
That means the majority of people — myself included — may be willing to violate their personal values to avoid saying “no” to someone else.
In the scheme of things, carving out a single afternoon to help a friend in need is unlikely to make a huge impact on your life’s dreams.
But say “yes” too many times, and your creative life will inevitably take a hit.
It can certainly feel awkward or embarrassing to do so — but learning to say “no” is an essential ingredient for fueling your creativity and building the life you want to live.
Saying ‘yes’ is saying ‘no’ to something else
Whether you’re simply asked to help someone out with a project like I was or you’re being offered a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity, saying “yes” usually feels good. We all want to be helpful, and we definitely don’t want to miss a chance to get ahead.
But there’s a catch to all these yeses:
Without exception, when you say “yes” to one thing, you’re automatically saying “no” to something else.
If you say “yes” to extra work, you say “no” to more free time. If you say “yes” to a vacation abroad, you also say “no” to that amount of money in your bank account. You get the picture.
The inverse is also true: When you say “no” to something, you’re also saying your own kind of “yes.”
The impact of “no” came up for me in a big way when I was getting JotForm off the ground. In the early days of the company, it seemed like every day, I opened up my laptop and read news of another tech startup receiving millions of dollars in VC funding.
I’ll be honest: The fast money to build my dream company was tempting. It would have been nice to have the resources to “blow up.”
But I knew my difficult decision to bootstrap also came with a big “yes.” Because I stuck to my guns and built JotForm from the ground up, I had the opportunity to cultivate the company my way.
Opting out of an approach that didn’t align with my values didn’t just buy me freedom. It bought me time — time to focus on what mattered most to me, and time to be creative in building a company I was proud of.
The cost of time and focus
Creativity and saying “no” go hand in hand. Steve Jobs once said, “Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” Another way of putting it: Saying “yes” to everything is a quick road to mediocrity.
Saying “yes” all the time might seem like a good way to get ahead when you’re building something. It can’t hurt to make connections and indulge in learning opportunities on occasion. But these constant “yeses” can have the opposite effect, too. As philosopher and entrepreneur Naval Ravikant says,
“A busy calendar will destroy your ability to do anything great.”
It’s important to remember that our time and focus — two of our greatest currencies as creatives — are always an investment. Saying yes is like spending your money, and saying no is like saving your money in the bank.
When we are stretched too thin, we are essentially stealing from ourselves — over-commitment depletes our resources, and rather than getting ahead, we end up running in circles.
On the other hand, when we choose the conservative approach so we can bulk up our bank accounts with time and focus, we ensure we have the resources we need for coming up with our next industry-disrupting (or world-changing!) idea.
It may not always be fun to save our time and focus instead of spending it, but if we keep at it long enough, the payoff almost always worthwhile.
Growth always requires sacrifice
A creative life inevitably comes with trade-offs. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert calls it “self-accountability”: To make time for the things you’re passionate about, you’ll have to sacrifice some things that don’t help you move ahead.
To make sure my “yes” is always in line with my greatest goals and values, I take regular time to reflect on what matters most to me in any given period of my life. Knowing ahead of time what will keep me on track — and what will drain my time and focus — is a helpful litmus test when opportunities arise.
So before you say “yes” to something, try practicing thinking critically about what you most value. What do you need to be most creative and effective in the projects and endeavors that are important to you right now?
No matter where you are on your journey or what you want to accomplish, try something new and take some time to think before you grab the pen and write “pickle” in the library book.
Your future self — and all the people your creative accomplishments will serve — may thank you.