The fringe benefits of no

A couple summers ago, I read a book a day. I’d heard when President Bill Clinton was in office, he read two books a day. I didn’t know if it were true or not, but I loved this idea. I was not President and not even that important, so I could certainly read one book a day. So it began.

The trick, I realized early on, was choosing small books. Short books. It wasn’t cheating (and hey, I was making up the rules anyway), and books were books, short or not. So I started with the Penguin “Great Ideas” Series. And read them all. Then, I heard someone say something about a curriculum, and started theming my weeks. Bread-making, gardening, astronomy. It became easy.

It never occurred me to blog about it, or keep track of what I was reading even. It wasn’t about the public display of information, or proving to anyone that I could do it. It was just me against books. And sometime around late July, about 45-50 books in, I proved to myself that I could.

And so I quit. One day, I just stopped.

Me versus me

The Book-A-Day project just ended. No fanfare, no apologies, no blog post announcing I was done. I stopped.

The project wasn’t about finishing, it was about seeing if I could do it. It was about the formulation of ideas, the construction of a book framework — and in a trial of “me versus me,” who would come out on top? What interesting-ness would emerge if I spent time prototyping ideas with myself? What could I make?

Making no

What you choose not to do, who you choose not to spend time with, and who and what you decide to say no to — what you do choose — is how you mark time.

In irony, the whole experiment taught me that my barrier to quitting was my attraction to making. The reason I do is to create.

The same is true in my predilection for saying yes.

I say yes to make things. I say yes to watch projects grow, to collaborate, to see progress.

But too much yes, I quickly found, is unsustainable and unhealthy.

What could I make from no?

So I started a list. Instances of saying no.

The No List

When I say no (e.g., conference talk invites, “pick my brain” invitations, jury solicitations), I immediately add my regret to the No List. I nurture this growing list of no-things, adding category data like dates events would have happened, themes, and date turned down.

Suddenly, I’m making list of cities not seen, airplanes not embarked, and time saved, rather than time taken away. Several months later, I have a made a substantial something. It’s how I’ve marked time.

There are many instances where deadlines are crucial, where getting things done needs to get done. Sometimes saying yes is just the thing that must happen. But just as importantly, most times it is not.

Stop reading a book halfway through, keep a list of your turn-downs, and celebrate the fringe benefits of no.

I’ll be right there with you.