The Power of Saying No… to Yourself

Usually when I see “the power of saying no” referenced somewhere, it’s talking about saying no to others, particularly when they ask you to do something you have no desire to do. Saying no, the now-cliched self-help book will tell you, doesn’t make you a bad person. So forget the guilt, hang up on that telemarketer, and get on with your dinner! This is all well and good and you can count me among those who probably still need to get better at it, but what I’m talking about is saying no to the things you’re asking yourself to do, but which you still have no desire to do. It’s a lot less intuitive, but it makes perfect sense.

One of the key goals I’ve been centering my life around in recent years is trying to line up my desires with my actions. It was crazy just how out of whack those two things had become, solely through the act of being careless with my habit formation and not questioning whether what I was doing was what I wanted to be doing for far too long. As I’ve been coming to realize, intentional habit formation is important. The first and hardest step is reckoning with yourself and becoming better at listening to the distinct voices from your habit-controlled body and your logic-controlled mind. Imagine this scenario, which takes place when you would like to be productive but have hit a road block:

Body: This task is hard. You know what would feel better than doing that task right now? A cookie. Or two cookies. Or ten!

Mind: Hey there body – don’t you remember the last hojillion times you ate ten cookies to avoid a task, how it just made you feed stupid after? And your stomach hurt?

Now at this point, it’s easy to think that habit and emotion are going to win the day – clearly there’s a task to be avoided and no admonishment from stern old Logic is going to take away the true fact that a sweet, sweet release of endorphins and other chemicals awaits you by eating a cookie. Sure, logically you may know it’s smart to delay gratification and complete the task, but once your stressed out hand is in the cookie jar it’s too late for such far reaching thoughts. Your Mind’s negativity, in fact, has likely only added to your stressful cookie craze. The solution is to find a better immediate gratification. So let’s rewrite that argument by the Mind.

Mind: Hey there body – remember how good it felt last time you said no to that impulse and took your hand out of the cookie jar? And then did something else productive instead? 

It sounds simple, but the key here is to remember that in this scenario you never really wanted a cookie – you were trying to get something done that you needed to do, and what you really want is still just to get something done. Doing what you want to do, and not what you don’t want to do, feels incalculably better than the reverse, and that feeling can be immediate. It really does feel good to stand there next to the closed cookie jar – in control. Cookies may be factually delicious, but they will only feel delicious if you eat them when you want to. A moment of positive mindfulness can make a world of difference.

As a final note, I’ve experienced the above plenty of times only to feel calm for a moment, turn back to the task, and then feel like I’ve slammed back into the same brick wall when it still stresses me out just as much. The good news here is that if you can accurately identify what you want to do (like a task) and what you don’t want to do (like eat a cookie) once, you’re already a pro and can do it again. Expand this to understand a whole mess of things you absolutely know you’re happy that you have done, and those you know you’re unhappy to have done. If you can’t quite face a given Task, be disciplined and procrastinate effectively by pointing yourself to one of the other things that makes you happier.

And I don’t mean “fun” here, I mean happy – for example, I’m far happier when I take a break by doing dishes than playing whatever freemium game I hate myself for having downloaded onto my phone. After ten minutes, I have fewer dishes to do, rather than a few more meaningless points. Even if I don’t feel like doing dishes and would rather avoid my stress with the mindless game, because I’ve identified how I’ll feel afterwards I can still avoid my primary stress while starting a spiral of increasing productivity, instead of increasing self-destruction.

*Final, final note – I don’t absolutely hate eating cookies or even playing freemium games, which can occasionally be entertaining or even strategic. It’s just most of the time they’re not. Maybe this will work its way into its own longer post about games one day.


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