Time to Save Time

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”—Warren Buffett

Whether it’s playing the piano, studying medicine or memorising lines for a play, it seems that no expertise can be achieved without the dull mundane ritual of repetition. Returning, day after day, to rehearse and refine your craft. It’s how farmers, athletes and soldiers are made. It’s how art, music and words are perfected.

Writing is a burdensome blessing. It’s burdensome because the ritual of repetition is constantly in conflict with the demands of the day. Most writers will tell you that writing is not really tough. But getting started is simply unnatural. It is a daily battle with distraction, doubt and discouragement. So many things to do. Not enough impulse to write. No real reason to live.

While some wait for a mood, what some writers don’t know is that writing creates the mood for writing. Like a body that needs to be warmed up before it reaches peak physical capability, the mind needs to be exercised before it reaches a creative sweet-spot. A writer waiting for inspiration to make him write is like the Christian who sleeps with the Bible under their pillow hoping that they will wake up wise.

Work turns thoughts into words and fools into weathered pilgrims. It is driven by the discipline of training your body to do what your feelings are prone to resist. Shut up. Sit down. Start writing. And then the words will come.

To create the space for creativity, I have had to learn to say No—frequently, freely and without fear. Show me a writer who says there is not enough time to write and I will show you a writer who has not yet learnt to say “No”.

Cal Newport has a full-time job as a professor at Georgetown University, teaching classes and meeting with students. He writes six (or more) peer-reviewed academic journal papers per year. He’s the author of four books and he’s at work on a fifth. He’s married with a young child and handles all the responsibilities that come with being a husband and dad. He blogs regularly about productivity and expert performance.

And yet he finishes work at 5:30 pm every day and rarely works weekends.

One of his five rules for productivity is, “Do very few things, but be awesome at them.” You need to do fewer things. Everything is not essential. You say “yes” to more than you need to.

When I decided to say “No” more often, I realised I had to complete everything to which I had already said “Yes”. But I didn’t want to wait to start saying “No”. It took a few months of refusing new opportunities while I worked my way through previous commitments until I finally started a week when I was free to do what I wanted to do, what I needed to do.

Your time and your thoughts need your protection. Give them the space they need and they will give you the life that you want.

What do you need to do this week to start saying “No”?


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