Fear

The Single Principle You Must Practice When Feeling Overwhelmed or Burned Out

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Years ago I got divorced and went from married suburbanite to urban bachelor in the span of a few weeks. Talk about a bumpy landing. I didn’t have any friends, family, or social support downtown, so it took me time to develop a new two-word philosophy to rattle myself out of the wallowing.

What was the two-word philosophy?

Say yes.

To anything, anytime, with anyone. Say yes. Simple as that.

I don’t regret that philosophy. It brought me opportunities and human connections that I would have never had otherwise. But for everything I gained, I also paid the price on productivity. The more you’re given a chance to do, and then actually do, of course the less time you have to do it all.

So this article shares how I knew it was time to rein it in and the method I use to keep everything in balance today. It’s a great principle if you’re struggling with any form of overwhelm, burnout, or just feeling like there’s always too much to do.

THE (LIMITED) VIRTUES OF “YES”

Defaulting to yes actually worked well for me in those first few years.

I went to charity events for organizations I’d never heard of before, I was the guy at the concert who doesn’t know the songs but buys the album anyway, and I often had some random internet friend crashing on my couch.

Of course, I also had lots of nights that didn’t end well. Stutter stops, terrible blind dates, cold lonely walks home from some get-together that didn’t go anywhere. But I also said yes to doing a TED Talk that became one of the world’s most inspiring and said yes to writing a bunch of short blog posts for myself which ultimately turned into The Book of Awesome and sold a million copies.

And then, over time, I suddenly had more options, more choices, and more invitations than I could possibly accept. This transition happens to many of us. You go from parent of one kid to parent of three. You say yes to the community board and suddenly three more boards ask you to join. You score a promotion at work and then inherit a big team of 10 people to manage.

You look back and realize that you said yes to more—more meetings, more opportunities, more challenges. Your life accelerated. But then you hit a point where you suddenly have too much to do.

Welcome to the World of Overwhelm.

Now what?

“HELL YEAH!” VERSUS EVERYTHING ELSE

My friend Derek Sivers has a great philosophy that I’ve adopted and want to share with you. It’s called, “No or hell yeah!” and it’s really quite simple. Here’s how it works: You receive an invitation to do something (a date, a job, a social event, whatever), then take a minute to observe your authentic reaction—which is invariably either one of two things:

  1. A super emphatic, fist-pumping, “Hell yeah!” where you’re just shaking with excitement to do it—in which case you do it, or

  2. Literally anything else at all—in which case you don’t.

The beauty of this model is that it filters every other positive reaction into a no: “Um, sounds good!”, “Lemme check my calendar, I think I’m open,” or the dreaded, “Can I get back to you?”

No, no, all no!

Those are lukewarm reactions that remain positive until just before you get to the commitment and realize you wish you’d said no instead. Maybe you even bail last-minute, which destroys trust and hurts your reputation. It’s much easier to simply filter your options through the “No or Hell Yeah” model up front, to make sure you’re only committing to things you really want to do.

GREAT IS THE ENEMY OF LIFE CHANGING

What’s the benefit?

You don’t kill those invisible opportunities you haven’t dreamt up yet—those big projects you need time to dive into, and all the downtime your mind needs to create space for what matters.

I knew it was time to switch from “say yes” to “no or hell yeah!” when I looked at my calendar and realized I was swamped, morning to night, on things I really enjoyed doing but—and here’s the crucial part—only some of which I loved so much as to call life changing. If “good” is the enemy of great, then “great” is the enemy of “life changing.”

Why does it need to be life changing? Simple. Life is short. We have on average 30,000 days here total. It’s over in a blink! There are already loads of options and obligations you simply can’t say no to because they’re part of your work or family responsibilities. And that’s fine. But that often leaves precious little room for your personal and social commitments, which makes it all the more important to set a really high bar for those. When you do, you’ll free up time to focus on what you care deeply about. And the benefit of doing that will start leaking into your work and family life, too.

Now, I’ll be honest. Though it sounds great on paper, making this transition wasn’t easy for me. It was actually downright painful. And it continues to be. It’s not just saying no to lunch meeting so you can write a book chapter. That’s the easy stuff! It also includes missing a family dinner because I’m off interviewing David Sedaris for my podcast. These hurt—deeply. It’s incredibly hard saying no to friends, fun projects, and fly-away ideas. Plus, sometimes you find yourself just staring in horror as a brand-new relationship you know would take off if you had time to put into it just sputters and dies because of zero water or sunlight.

No need to pretend that’s easy. It’s frankly a horrible feeling.

But the alternative?

Well, those giant regrets haunting you later in life—that maybe you could’ve tackled your dream job, that perhaps you should’ve done something that felt more meaningful—those are harder to brush away than any obligations cluttering your calendar next week or next month. Because plotted on a long enough timeline saying yes to everything doesn’t just tank your productivity, it also eats away at your sense of purpose.

And that’s actually pretty easy to say no to, don’t you think?

An earlier version of this article appeared in Fast Company

Here's Why You Need A 'Day of Yes'

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We’re experiencing a loneliness epidemic.

More of us live alone now compared to ever before, and a New York Times article says the percentage of American adults who report they’re lonely has doubled since the 1980s. Now it’s sky-high at 40 per cent.

And it gets worse. A recent meta-analysis titled “Social Relationships and Mortality Risk” shows loneliness creates double the mortality risk of obesity and is actually even greater than the risk of smoking.

Suddenly it feels like many of us are facing a particularly bleak future.

Do you ever feel lonely? Or know others who do? I certainly felt devastatingly lonely when I crash-landed downtown after my divorce years ago. Suddenly I had no friends, no family, and no social structure around me. It took me time to invent a two-word philosophy to kick myself out of the gloom and doom.

What was it?

Say Yes.

I know it’s not revolutionary but it changed my behaviour so much.

Suddenly with my new philosophy I was saying yes to anything I was asked to do. I found myself volunteering for charity functions, going to the play with six people in the audience, and saying yes to any event, literally any event, anybody asked me to attend.

Shonda Rhimes, creator and producer of shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, delivered a 4-million-plus viewed TED Talk called “My year of saying yes to everything.” In it she says:

“So a while ago, I tried an experiment. For one year, I would say yes to all the things that scared me. Anything that made me nervous, took me out of my comfort zone, I forced myself to say yes to. Did I want to speak in public? No, but yes. Did I want to be on live TV? No, but yes . . . And a crazy thing happened: the very act of doing the thing that scared me undid the fear, made it not scary. My fear of public speaking, my social anxiety, poof, gone . . . ‘Yes’ changed my life. ‘Yes’ changed me.”

Yes puts you in situations you’re not comfortable with.

Yes helps you get out there.

Oh, and how big is the relationship between social ties and happiness?

It’s not big.

It’s gigantic.

According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who wrote popular bestseller Stumbling on Happiness:

“If I wanted to predict your happiness, and I could know only one thing about you, I wouldn’t want to know your gender, religion, health, or income. I’d want to know about your social network — about your friends and family and the strength of the bonds with them.”

So say yes. Say yes! Get out there. When you sign up for things you’re scared to do, go on trips you never thought you’d go on, and sign up for activities you have no business doing, guess what happens?

You meet new people, you create new relationships, you combat loneliness head-on . . . and you become happier.

And if a Year of Yes sounds too intimidating, no problem.

Just start with a Day of Yes first.

How about today?

An earlier version of this article appeared in The Toronto Star

How to Conquer Your Biggest Fears

We’re all scared of something.

Do you get heart palpitations at the idea of speaking in front of big groups at work? Are you worried you’ll never actually learn to swim? Do you stare at the ceiling, thinking you’ll never write that book you’ve been dreaming about for years?

Me, too. I’ve deeply felt all three of those exact fears, along with many others. But those fears are just a few I’ve started overcoming using a little happiness hack I can share with you.

Are you ready?

O.K., to start with, here is the thought process most of us follow when it comes to facing our fears:

CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT —> DO IT

Before you do anything, you have to feel like you can do it first—and then you have to actually want to do it second.

Take my fear of swimming. Developed from a childhood full of ear infections and never-ending sets of tubes, I grew into the 30-year-old guy perpetually hanging by the grill at the pool party. I was afraid of the water. Why? Because “I can’t swim. I’ll sink like a stone! I can’t tread water, jump into the deep end, nothing.” And “You know, I don’t really want to swim anyway. No big deal. I prefer reading at the beach. Getting wet, showering, showing off spaghetti-noodle arms? No thanks. I’ll do without.”

Yes, I never got to do it because I never thought I could do it and so I didn’t want to do it.

It’s the same way many of us think about running a marathon, giving a big presentation or writing a novel.

So what happens if we think about that process in a different order? The same set of words, but said a different way? Specifically, what happens if do it becomes the starting point instead of the end? Well, then it looks like this:

DO IT —> CAN DO IT —> WANT TO DO IT

What happened with my fear of swimming?

Well, I started dating a beautiful woman who I fell in love with, fast. On our second date, she told me her family had a cottage on an island—and every morning in the summer, her little cousins and 80-year-old grandparents swam around the island together. And did I ever want to come?

That night, without thinking about whether I could do it or whether I wanted to do it, I just did it. I signed up for swimming lessons at the city pool. Shortly thereafter, I walked into the moldy locker room and listened to my heart thumping as I stepped onto the pool deck wearing a life jacket and goggles.

After that first 30 minutes of flutter-kicking in the shallow end and wearing a life jacket, guess what happened? I thought, “I can do this!” And so the next week, I wanted to do it. “Give me moldy locker rooms! Pass me the flutter board—in the deep end this time.” And after I had done it one week, I knew I could do it again.

How do you turn your biggest fear into your biggest success?

You place action in front of capability and motivation. You put do it before can do it and want to do it.

Turns out, it’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking than it is to think yourself into a new way of acting. Those forced baby steps create the early belief in your abilities, which create the motivation—and a virtuous cycle quickly develops.

So go forward. Step into your fears. Because you’ll quickly see that, completely counter-intuitively, motivation does not actually cause action. Action causes motivation.