To Everyone Who Asks For ‘Just A Little’ Of Your Time: Here’s What It Costs To Say Yes
To the person who emailed me this morning with a perfectly nice request,
I’m sorry to say the answer is no.
You didn’t do anything wrong. You were perfectly respectful and within your rights to ask about arranging a time for a meeting (or was it for a phone call or about setting a date for that project we discussed, I don’t recall).
The problem isn’t you. There is something wrong with me.
I have a form of anorexia.
Don’t be alarmed. It’s not serious, though I take it quite seriously. Because it’s probably the only form that’s healthy. In fact, I think it’s the secret to my success.
I have calendar anorexia.
I want as absolutely little in my calendar as possible. I’m meticulous about it. Whatever the least amount possible I can have in my calendar without killing my career—that’s what I want.
To be clear, this isn’t some nonsense about not putting things in the calendar, like someone who says they’re on a diet but eats a lot. This is about committing to and scheduling next to nothing on a daily and weekly basis.
Want to set up a quick call to chat? Should we have coffee next week? Let’s get together to discuss?
Nope, nope, nope.
I could, but I just can’t.
Even if they are serious opportunities, even if it will only take 15 minutes, even if it’s something that everyone else does, I’d like to avoid it.
Of course, I’m not perfect at this. I succumb, like everyone else in the modern world (so if you think I’m being a hypocrite, I am…and that’s why I really have to say no this time). There’s stuff I have to do and that stuff has to be scheduled. There are requirements for work and for basic civility. But even then…
When I pull up my phone, click the day’s date and see too many little boxes of time blocked off, I get very nervous. What is all this? Where did all my time go? What about my day? Why did I agree to any of this again? (The answer is usually because it was really far away and I thought it would magically work itself out.)
And then the most fearful question: How will I be able to write?
I want two or three things in there at most. The rest is for me. The rest is not allowed to be scheduled. And if it is scheduled, it better be because I’m getting paid or I really, really wanted to do it. Everything else is for suckers.
Paul Graham has a famous essay about managers vs makers. There are two ways to run your life, he says. Managers know that their day is divided up in pieces for meetings, calls, and administrative tasks. Makers, on the other hand, need to have large blocks of uninterrupted, unscheduled time to do what they do. To create and think.
When people ask how I manage to get so much writing done, my anorexia is the answer. Same goes for how I’ve managed to keep a healthy relationship and how I manage to exercise and read. I keep a maker’s schedule because I believe that anything else is anathema to deep work or creativity.
Early in one’s creative career, this is relatively easy. Mostly because no one really wants much of your time. But as you achieve any measure of success in your field, this changes. It’s not a malicious thing. It’s actually an enormous compliment and a validation of your hard work.
But the result is that you have more opportunities and responsibilities that can reasonably be accommodated. And how you choose to respond to this determines the course of your career (and in my opinion, your personal sanity and happiness).
In Ego is the Enemy, I tell a story about George Marshall. While he was cabinet member in the Truman administration, he was asked to sit for an official portrait. Though I’m sure he did what he could to get out of it, for whatever reason, Marshall was unable to. So he went, on several days, to sit for the artist, spending who knows how many hours still as…well…a portrait. On the final day, the artist informed Marshall that the portrait was complete. Marshall quickly got up, thanked him and began to walk out the door. The artist was surprised. He’d just spent all this time sitting, didn’t he want to at least see the painting?
The answer was no. Marshall didn’t want to spend one second more than he had to. He definitely didn’t care what he looked like in some picture.
I always thought it was strange to hear actors complain about the two weeks of media they had to do to promote their movies. Who doesn’t like publicity? Isn’t that the whole perk of being famous? But then, over the last few years, I started to understand. These interviews were a major time and energy suck. It’s disrupting their life—a life where the rest of the time, they make their own schedule. Worse, it’s to do something repetitive and unfulfilling, answering the same questions over and over again, asked by people who usually haven’t even seen their work.
When I ranted about podcasts last year, it was in part, my own realization of the same idea. The podcast is fun for the person making it. For the person agreeing to be on it, that’s an hour of their time they’re giving up. Both sides seem to fundamentally miss the magnitude of that imposition. But one is selfish if they point it out, or refuse to play along, except on their own terms. And so most don’t.
Seneca writes that if all the geniuses in history were to get together, none would be able explain our baffling relationship with time. He says,
No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives—worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passers-by, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.
You can only hand so many hours of your day over to other people before there is none left. Even if there are some left, you may have lost the clarity, the energy and the capacity to do anything with them.
The goal in my impossible, perfectionist calendar-anorexic mind is that one day I’ll have enough control and discipline that there will be no distinction in my schedule between a weekday and a weekend. Every day will be Saturday. Will feel like a Saturday. No interruptions. No feeling like this or that must be because someone else wants it to be. All white space in the calendar. Free. Productive.
It’s in that mindset and that lifestyle that I do my best work. So I do my best to recreate it however possible, that is, in modern life where one has a job, obligations, and responsibilities. However many times I have to say no, or things I have to miss out on to make that happen.
But even anorexia fails as a metaphor. Because food, once consumed, can be burned off. Even Seneca’s property metaphor fails too. Property can be regained, money can be re-earned.
Time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset—we cannot buy more of it. We cannot get a second of it back. We can only hope to waste as little as possible. Yet somehow we treat it as most renewable of all resources.
So if you’re asking if we can chat or get together. The answer is no.
I’m sorry. But I have this condition.
I hope you can understand.
This post was originally published on Thought Catalog.
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