How to Be Really Successful Without Becoming a Workaholic

Jun 23, 2014
10 Min Read

You'd be foolish to pass up on new opportunities and possibilities if you want to be successful, right? Not necessarily. By always saying "yes," you're letting other people prioritize your life. If you want to attain your goals, you need to take a more disciplined approach and learn to say "no."

If you find yourself sending emails at 3 a.m., working on vacation and feeling exhausted and stressed day in a day out, you may fear that you’re becoming a workaholic.

But if you want to get off that rollercoaster, it’s going to take more than just saying you want to get off – and it’s not going to happen overnight. Because what you’ve embedded into your life and into your psyche didn’t happen all of a sudden, and may take time and discipline to unravel it.

“We have become a society of people who believe they must say ‘yes’ to everything,” says Greg McKeown, author of “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.” “It’s a form of madness to believe that.”

McKeown is well known for his work with companies like Facebook and LinkedIn, but he’s also the father of four children and knows the demands of everyday life. But he says that “we have been sold a bill of goods that you can do it all and ought to want to do it all.”

Social media helps fuel that belief, often making it seem as if fellow tweeters or connections are working 24/7 and thriving at it. But McKeown argues that just as society created a housing bubble, we’re creating a “more bubble” that prompts us to say yes to everyone to keep them happy.

“We have come to value ‘more’ and there is no tradeoff for us,” he says. “So think about whether you want to be the person to invest in this bubble before it bursts.”

McKeown does believe there is a building groundswell of support for shifting away from saying yes to everything, and instead paring down our lives to essential activities. But just having that desire isn’t enough, he argues, and all of us need to support one another and work toward creating a culture where it’s OK to say no.

“To ignore society is not an individual sport,” he says. “There is not a single trick or tip, but I do think it’s important that we support someone else on a team who wants to do this. Then we can start to have the tough conversations.”

Those tough conversations, of course, include the ones where you tell the boss or important customer “no.”

“You have to learn to say things like, ‘I’m happy to do that, but let me talk to you about what that will take,’” he explains. “You’ve got to bring the painful tradeoff to the conversation.”

McKeown says the purpose of his book is to show people how to do less – but better. He also stresses that it involves a disciplined approach, and may be something you have to continually work toward. It’s not a quick fix, but rather a way “to prioritize your life so someone else doesn’t do it for you,” he says.

Likening the effort to hiring a professional organizer to bring order to your closet, McKeown offers ways to clear the clutter in your life and get rid of the well-intended commitments that pile up as we say “yes” to everything. Some of his advice includes:

  • Creating “thinking” time. Bill Gates is famous for creating a twice-yearly “think week” where he disconnects to just think and read. While you may not be able to take that much time off, you can create such a strategy into your day like McKeown. He reads classic literature in the first 20 minutes of his day. “Not only does this squash my tendency to check my email as soon as I wake up, it centers my day,” he says.
  • Thinking like a journalist. Journalists are trained to look at the bigger picture so they can write a lead that reveals the meaning behind an event. Try keeping a journal, and “write less than you feel like writing,” McKeown suggests, as this will keep you from burning out by writing too much in the beginning. Every 90 days, take an hour to read your journal entries and look for broader trends or patterns, or the “lead” of your day or week that can help you see a pattern or trend in your life.
  • Playing the editor. Editors are known to slash entire paragraphs out of a story or cut hours from films because they consider the material nonessential. They use what McKeown calls “deliberate subtraction” to actually make the story better. Think of yourself the editor of your life and learn to cut the trivial, the unimportant or irrelevant.
  • Being selective. TED speaker Derek Sivers says we shouldn’t say ‘yes’ anymore, but either “HELL YEAH!” or “no.” When you clean out your closet, you ask yourself if you absolutely love something and will wear it before deciding to keep it. Do the same for all your choices, and you’ll eliminate trivia, McKeown advises.
  • Believing that clarity will make you strong. If you’re clear about what is important to you at any given moment – spending more time with a child or going on a vacation – then you’ll find the strength you need to say no to the nonessentials.
  • Not multitasking. “You either do many things sort of well or a few things very well,” McKeown says. “You might get a temporary benefit from doing all of them, but then you’ll be seen as a ‘yes’ person, and I don’t think that will lead you to be respected.”
  • Preparing for bumpy roads. Just assuming that things will work out can lead to stress, and problems will pile up when things do go wrong. If you prepare carefully for any potential pitfalls, you will reduce friction. Try asking yourself questions such as: 1) “What risks do I face on this project?” 2)“What is the worst-case scenario?” Answering such questions can help you see where you need to build in more time or budget.

Finally, McKeown acknowledges that learning to say no can be difficult, but gets easier over time. He now says he’s made choices that include wrestling with his children on a trampoline instead of going to a networking event and not watching television or movies when he travels on business “so there is time to think and rest.”

“For me, a key benefit of being more present in the moment has been making joyful memories that would otherwise not exist,” he says “I smile more.”

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