The Inbox that stubbornly refuses to empty. The “To Respond” list that keeps getting longer. The sudden, important meeting that sinks your day’s plan, and most of your day. The point where you mentally switch from “How much will I accomplish this week?” to “How much will I let slip this week?”. Sound at all familiar?
I’ve been having a week. One of those weeks. And something I’ve noticed about my stress response is that I tend to go into “damage control” mode, putting off people and tasks in favor of the thing that needs to be tended most. The impulse often feels soothing, like I’m asserting control and being decisive. And there are seemingly easy things to ditch. My to do list is full of them. The professor trying to find a project for her class. A PhD student asking for an interview. A request to give a lecture at a local museum. That book I’ve been lugging around for a couple of months that I still haven’t finished, let alone made notes on. It’d be easy to say “No” to and cross off the list. But often that damage control actually creates more damage than I’m preventing. The opportunity costs of saying “No” too quickly can be high.
As I was staring at the list, I had one of those little epiphanies that can realign your brain. Having decided to say no to a bunch of things, I didn’t feel any less stressed, or more free to focus. So I asked myself what it would look like if I said yes to the things I was thinking of crossing off. And for a few of them, saying yes didn’t really kill my crowded calendar any more than it already was. And once I started thinking about them as possibilities rather than intrusions I was able to see strategic value. For them, saying “Yes” turned into “Yes, and” in a way that Jen Brown would be proud of. The interview would provide data for other things I was working on. The student project could be a useful testing ground for an idea. I said “Yes” and immediately felt better, even though I’d theoretically added more to the pile.
The opposite was also true. The lecture, while appealing to my vanity and wallet, would require a ton of preparation on a topic that wasn’t really a current interest of mine. Saying yes would mean digging out books I hadn’t read in years, finding old presentations I could retool, and spending time that I would otherwise spend on other items on the to do list. Saying “No” to them was actually the right thing and felt right. But turning the default question around allowed me to differentiate more strategically.
And, of course, the other benefit of this epiphany was that I like saying “yes” and “yes and”. It feels good to engage with the world and the work, and not get stuck in the swamp of Too Much to Do.