There’s a quote attributed to Robert Heinlein that goes “In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.”
Of course we can become enslaved not only by daily trivia, but by all sorts of distractions big and small. If you’re like me and have a hard time saying no to things, you probably know what I’m talking about. It isn’t so difficult to waste a day cleaning the house, organizing, making phone calls, reading the news–all good stuff but also stuff that can get far too much precedence in our day. These distractions help us avoid facing decisions and taking hard action, and they’re good at it because we can easily pretend that they are crucial to our success. “If I can’t do everything just right, if I can’t keep up to date on the news and keep my house in tip-top shape, then I can’t get moving on my bigger projects. I’ll get moving on that stuff after I get some of this preliminary stuff done.”
Since I have a hard time saying no – I have to remember this: focusing on one thing requires not focusing on many others. There will always be things that don’t get done, both big and small. But trying to do everything means you are delaying living your life.
Success, in other words, means cutting things out. In our day-to-day life, this means we might live without certain comforts and absolute perfection. It means saying “I’ll catch up on the news after I write this blog post or make those client calls”. On a grander scale, success means knowing that there are things you might enjoy doing, but that you will have to put off or even live without doing.
Success also means that you might “fail” in many areas of life. If I want to be a successful concert pianist I might fail at having a routine domestic life, sleeping comfortably in my bed every night or becoming extremely wealthy. On the other hand, if I want to be a wealthy business tycoon, I may have to fail at having ample free time or developing as an artist during my prime. At this moment, I’m failing at getting those killer abs I want because I’m sitting in my pajamas writing a blog post.
It isn’t always easy to know what I should say no to. It takes a lot of thinking about I am, and really getting to know my strengths and weaknesses. It means being organized well enough to know what is crucial today, and in the next month, year, decade. More deeply it means asking questions like “What are my true strengths and weaknesses?”, “What do I enjoy doing?” and most importantly, “What do I want in life on a fundamental level?”
What to cut out of your life is a hard decision but it’s worth it. It’s worth it because when we don’t say no to a lot of stuff we could be doing, we aren’t saying yes to that stuff, we’re just saying no to what really matters.