Freedom Begins With ‘No.’

If you want to have any time to yourself, it helps to be an asshole.

You know how it is. Everyone wants a little piece of you. The boss wants you to work late, your co-workers want you to help with their projects, and your spouse wants you to run errands and do chores around the house. Telemarketers and survey outfits call and request ‘just a few minutes’ of your time. Teenagers knock on your door and try to sell you magazine subscriptions so they can win a trip to Paris. (“Can I go with you?” I asked on young lady. Ah, no.) Friends and relatives suck you into the drama of their lives, so you somehow find yourself hustling some blind guy you’ve never met before, and his guide dog, to the airport so they can leave town before some petty criminal exacts revenge on them.

OK, maybe that last one doesn’t happen to everyone.

The point is, many of the people you come into contact with will want some of your time and if you get a reputation as a soft touch, someone who is always willing to help out, they’ll be on you like buzzards on a rotting cow-carcass. With similar intent and outcome. Just about everyone wants to be liked, though, so it is hard to say ‘no.’ It feels good to help someone, to make them happy. It only takes a few minutes — or a few hours — of your time, so what’s the harm?

When you get right down to it, though, hours are our most precious resource. There are only 24 of them in a day, and only so many days in your life, and you don’t know just how many. The limit is strict, but unknown, like a checking account with an unknown balance and no way to make new deposits. Keep writing checks and eventually you’re going to find the hard way that there’s nothing left.

The more you let people absorb your time and effort in things that are important to them, the less time you have for things that are important to you. Those minutes and hours, once spent, can never be regained.

Certainly, unless you are completely asocial, there are people with legitimate claims on your time that you don’t begrudge at all. If you don’t enjoy spending time with your spouse, or your children, you have obviously made some poor decisions somewhere and need to seriously re-evaluate certain aspects of your life. But wouldn’t you rather be spending time with your family than helping the friend of a friend move? You have to go to work to make a living, but do you really need to take your work home with you every night?

If you are self-employed, the decisions become even harder. You don’t just have one boss, you have a dozen, or two dozen, or many many, clients and most likely every one of them thinks you are available every hour of the day or night. Does it fill you with joy when some stranger calls you a 8am on a Sunday morning with some trivial problem? (“My computer is acting funny.”) You will get calls and emails from people who expect you to drop everything and help them, right now.

These aren’t just random stranger, though. They’re paying customers. Whatever their sense of timing, you need their money to pay the mortgage and put food on the table. You force a smile into your voice and say, “Sure I’ve got a few minutes for a conference call. Our Valentine’s Day dinner reservations aren’t for another hour yet.”

Between the people you want to give your time to, and the people who are paying for some of it, and the irreducible minimum of time you have to have for yourself (even if it’s just three or four hours of sleep with your head down on your desk), there isn’t much left over for the real leeches. That’s when the magic word comes in.

No.

The most fundamental form of freedom any of us has is the ability to refuse. If you cannot say ‘no’ and make it stick, you are not free. You belong to anyone who asks you for something, whether it be money, time, or the clothes off your back.

My wife is a very nice person and hates to hurt anyone’s feelings. She has a terrible time with telemarketers. They make their spiel and she tells them that she’s not interested. They’re expecting that, of course, and launch into the second act. She refuses again. This can go on for some time before she finally extracts herself or I come along, take the phone gently from her hand, and hang up. (My own method is to let them go through their spiel, say ‘no,’ and hang up before they can respond.)

I, of course, am an asshole. I’m willing to be rude. I hate telemarketers of all varieties and would like to see every one of them die a painful death. Yeah, yeah, I know; they’re just trying to make a living. Well, screw them; they don’t deserve to make a living by stealing precious minutes from my life. Letting them steal more minutes just to avoid hurting their feelings is just foolish.

Of course, some of the people who impose on you will be human beings, not telemarketers, and deserve more consideration. At some point, though, you have to set boundaries and stick to them. Pare your time commitments down to the things that matter to you, not to the people asking. They’ll keep taking as long as you’ll keep giving. Be polite, but firm. “No. I’m sorry, but I can’t do that.”

You may even have to rein in the people who want to give you money.

I’ve had to do that. Not that the volume of time was overwhelming as such, but the fact that the interruptions could come at any time, day or night or holiday was oppressive. I was on-call 24/7/365 to a couple of dozen people and as the strain of it began to affect my health. My son grew from a baby to a toddler and his demands on my time — which, frankly, meant a lot more to me than someone being unable to check their email on a Saturday night — increased every day.

I began to say ‘no.’

It was not easy turning down money, saying to a client, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that for you anymore. I just don’t have the time.” But something had to give and I decided it wasn’t going to be me. I lost clients last year, companies and individuals who I had worked with for years. Nice people, most of them, but they were the clients whose claim on my time was out of proportion to the compensation I got for it. They, in other words, weren’t worth the stress they brought me.

Fortunately, it worked out for me. My business with other clients, more reasonable to work with (and more prompt about paying their bills), increased and made up the shortfall. With fewer things to focus on, I can do a better job on what is in front of me. And, most importantly, I sometimes get to spend extra time with my family.

Technology has put a tether on many workers now, chaining them to the office with email and cell phone, so there’s no such thing as time off. The average American worked a 45-hour work week in 2007 and vacations are almost non-existent (only 14% of workers get to take their two weeks). A long weekend — and checking the Blackberry a few times an hour — is the best most people can hope for.

Is your paycheck worth the time you put into it? Does your stomach hurt when the boss comes looking for you on a Friday afternoon and you know your weekend is about to disappear?

Is it time to draw the line?

That one little syllable of negation has tremendous power. It’s magic. It can let you reclaim your life, if you’re willing.

Sometimes you have to be rude. Not a team player. Anti-social. Selfish. An asshole.

But free.

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