Time Management

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

How To Make More Money Than A Harvard MBA

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Harvard makes you feel rich.

I walked through campus for two years feeling like I’d been cast in the lead role of Moneybags McGee in a movie about ruling the world and having it all.

On Harvard’s campus, tall twisting oak trees blow softly in the wind, casting polka-dot shadows over beautiful red-brick buildings, manicured ivy, and rolling lawns. Students ease open thirty-foot-tall carved wooden doors to grab made-to-order sushi from the cafeteria before eating with friends on brown leather couches against walls covered with expensive original art.

The students at Harvard Business School feel rich because they either are rich… or they’re about to get rich.

The average graduating salary is $140,000! To put that in perspective, the average American makes $905 a week or $47,060 a year. That means a fresh-faced, dewy-eyed twenty-six-year-old with two years of business school under his or her belt makes three times what the average American citizen makes. I know my salary almost tripled after I graduated from Harvard.

Yes, Harvard makes you feel rich because it actually makes you rich.

Or does it?


I was sad when I graduated, because all my friends were scattering in different directions. After a big road trip, it was suddenly all over and then:

  • Mark and his wife moved to Houston, and he got a job with a high-end consulting company. A full 25% of Harvard Business School grads go work for consulting firms, and the hours are notoriously tough. Unless they land a local assignment, most consultants fly out Monday mornings and fly home Thursday nights, every single week, every single month, forever.

  • Chris went to Washington, DC to be assistant principal at a big charter school. We kept in touch, but he was always at work when I called. We talked about our road trip and I’d ask him, “Are you getting any sleep these days?” He’d say, “Well, I get to work every morning around 7:00 a.m. and get home around 9:00 p.m. I usually go in for a few hours on the weekend, too. So yeah, enough sleep, but not much else.”

  • Ryan went into private equity in New York. 29% of Harvard Business School grads get finance jobs in sub-industries like investment banking, private equity, or hedge funds. They help big companies buy each other, invest in illiquid assets, create complicated investments. But Ryan told me he started work around 10:00 a.m. and worked till 11:00 p.m., seven days a week.

  • Sonia went to work in Silicon Valley at a big tech company. The tech giants hire 19% of the graduates from our class and had great reputations for gourmet meals, dry-cleaning, and Ping-Pong tables at the office. When I reached out to Sonia a year after graduation she told me she loved her job and was working about eighty hours a week.

It seemed crazy to me, but all my friends were working like 80 to 100 hours a week. And a week only has 168 hours in it! I remember thinking, “Is everyone nuts?”

I thought back to Harvard and remembered going out for dinner with a group of McKinsey consultants during a recruiting event. They flew to Boston and wined and dined us at a ritzy joint. We drank expensive wines, ate delicious food, and talked about world issues into the wee hours. My brain was overheating because of the stimulating conversation. These folks were warm, friendly, and killer smart. It was a great night.

But the thing I remember most is that when we were finally finishing up around two in the morning, all the McKinsey consultants were… going back to work! I’m not joking. They were jumping on conference calls with teams in Shanghai, opening laptops to do emails, or getting together to finalize presentations for the next day. At two in the morning!

Consultants and finance folks make up most of Harvard Business School grads and they work approximately 80 to 100 hours a week.

Are they really making $140,000 a year?

Do you remember fractions? I learned them back in fourth grade in a moldy classroom with flickering florescent lights in my elementary school. Pink chalk dust scrawled across blackboards showing us how one-half can be written as ½ or three-quarters can be written as ¾… with 3 being the numerator and 4 being the denominator. As in “I sat on the couch in sweatpants watching Netflix all night and ate 3⁄4 of a sausage pizza.”

Well, the Harvard salary of $140,000 is a fraction, too.

Every single job is paid by the hour.

Harvard Business School grads make double or triple the money a lot of people make, but they often work double or triple the hours, too. When you work that much, it’s harder to find time to shovel the driveway, play with your kids, or plant your garden, so maybe you hire people on the cheap to do those things for you. You will still have fun! Frankly, the money you’re making can afford luxury vacations and expensive restaurants. You may have even more fun. But there’s less time for fun.

Think about whether it’s important to you to feel the pride of a freshly shoveled driveway, the joy of watching your kids discover a new word, or see the tulips you planted in the fall finally bloom in the spring.

There’s nothing wrong with either life.

But think about the life you want.

Here’s how much a Harvard MBA makes compared to two very common jobs: an assistant manager at a retail store and an elementary school teacher.

They all make $28/hour.

Where did I get the numbers from?

Well, teachers are scheduled for seven-hour school days (usually 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.) with typically an hour off for lunch. Let’s round that up to thirty working hours a week. But we all know how hard teachers work. We know it’s way more than that! My dad is a teacher, my wife Leslie is a teacher, and they bring work home. The average teacher does an hour or two of work every single night! Marking, prepping, coaching a team. So I added ten hours a week for that.

Retail store assistant managers are typically scheduled for forty-hour work-weeks, but it’s a tough job. They end up working before or after shifts sometimes. There are questions, issues pop up, people call them at home. So I added ten hours a week for that.

And the eighty-five hours for Harvard MBAs? It’s a ballpark average figure based on my data, research, and personal experience. Working on consulting gigs in a Chicago hotel room or slaving away on an investment banking deal doesn’t exactly give you free evenings or weekends.

Although these numbers are generally accurate, of course there are exceptions. Are you the outlier teacher working eighty-five hours a week or the outlier Harvard MBA working forty? Maybe! But stick with me, because there’s still value in the higher level point here.

What’s the bottom line?

They all make $28/hour!

So how do you make more money than a Harvard MBA?

Work way less hours than they do … and make more dollars per hour.

But wait: Am I telling you to work less? No, that’s not the final takeaway. My point here isn’t that you should suddenly dial down your interests, passion, or career. My point is to calculate how much you make per hour and know this number. Remember this number. Have this number in your head. I have friends who work around the clock as downtown lawyers and they joke, “When I do the math I actually make less than minimum wage.” They’re right! And, frankly, I don’t understand them. Do not make less than minimum wage!

The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue your time so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.

The average life expectancy is around 30,000 days and we sleep for a third of that.

That means you have less than 20,000 days in your life total.

Understand how much a Harvard MBA really makes and then overvalue you, and overvalue your time, so every single hour of your working life is spent doing something you love.

Check out the video version of this article below:

An earlier version of this article appeared in my

#1 international bestseller The Happiness Equation