The Power of Saying No to Yourself

The Power of Saying No to Yourself

“Ourselves are our biggest obstacles in life” – Ryan Holiday

I look forward to many of the possibilities that the new year may bring. It’s easy to let the mind wonder and imagine all the possibilities. But as I reflect on previous successes, I’ve learned that I have the most growth when I set some tough boundaries.

I recall in my late teens and 20’s my decision and focus to learn and get good at playing the bass guitar. For a decade, I kept it simple: four strings, fretted, bass guitars only. I didn’t really own or play any other instrument. That intense focus and discipline allowed me to flourish and has enabled me to play and perform in a bunch of different music scenarios and find immense joy in doing so. Now, I can and have played fretted and fretless, 5 and 6 string basses, and even the upright. My deep ability to understand that instrument also will enable me to apply that depth of music to other instruments as well.

In effect, my ability to tell myself no, over and over again, allowed me to focus on something which enabled me to flourish.

A form of self-discipline is being able to say no to yourself. We need to establish health boundaries for ourselves. We need to learn to tell ourselves no when we have options that cross those boundaries. This is important so that we can grow. This discipline helps prevent us from getting in our way and being a distraction to ourselves.

This process starts by learning to ask good questions about yourself in your self-evaluation. You want to identify the problem of what you want to change. This could be things like you want to lose weight, have more energy, or have some money saved in the bank for a rainy day or retirement.

Then, it is important to educate yourself and potentially do some testing to try to figure out what are 20% of the things that cause 80% of your struggles. This is important so that while we’re working hard, we’re also working smart.  You don’t want to put the same effort to have only 20% of the potential results, right?

Once you’ve identified the things to start saying no to, you must then start changing some habits.

Charles Duhigg explains this process wonderfully in his book, The Power of Habit. Habits essentially are made up of 3 components, a cue, routine, and reward. He found that before it becomes a habit, you brain works equally actively throughout all 3 steps in the process. But once it becomes a habit, your brain activity plummets during the routine step. Therefore, to change the habits, you must focus on changing the cue and the reward, because during the routine, we’re just not thinking.

So let’s look at example in my life on how I’ve been applying this process. For years, I’ve been overweight. But recently, I’ve been able to put this process into place and lose about 10% of my overall body weight and actually lose about 12% body fat. And more importantly, I’ve been able to keep it off.

So body composition and weight is what I wanted to change. After years of trial and error, and from reading some highly recommended books on health and wellness, I came to the conclusion that diet was going to have the largest influence on my body composition, far more than exercise or supplements. So I wanted to focus on changing these habits first.

Now that I was focused on my diet, I wanted to know what are the top few foods that I struggle to have restraint that ruin my diet goals? My list is about 10 deep and looks like this.

  • Ice cream
  • Cookies, brownies, cake
  • Pizza
  • Chips and Salsa
  • Cheese flavored snacks
  • Indian Food
  • French Fries
  • Cashews
  • Chocolate Candy

When those items are around, the energy and discipline it takes me to say no to them is about 10x what it takes for me to say no to most other foods. So by having a three-fold strategy on how to deal with these helps.  First, I try to eliminate access to them, removing the cue, by minimizing the amount of time any and all of those spend in our house.  Second, I try to find non-conventional places to store them to further avoid the cue. For instance, ice cream sits on the top shelf, way in the back of the freezer so that when I open the freezer to get ice or something else, I don’t automatically see and then have to tell myself no.  Thirdly, I have an alternative habit that I try to build when I see and am tempted by those foods. Right now that reward is that I get to go eat a spoonful of peanut butter. The reward is still delicious, and has just as many calories, but it does not send my blood sugar through the roof making really hungry hours later.

Another example of how I have learned to say no to myself is when I asked myself the following question during my self-evaluation, what are my career goals at work and what are the main things that are getting in my way to achieve those?

One thing I noticed was I was saying yes to tasks that someone else could do. At the time, I was transitioning into more of a leadership and management role and I was accepting new tasks and responsibilities. I then had to teach myself to say no to other things I wanted to do that others could do. This habit alone has probably given me at least 10% more time at work to focus on bigger picture tasks. My stress decreased by closer to 20%. The few times when I’ve slipped and said yes added a layer of stress and distraction that ended up hurting me more than helping.

So what things in your life that you want to change could benefit by some healthy boundaries? Where do you need to tell yourself no a little more often in order to grow, flourish, or achieve those goals you’ve had your eye on?

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