Jan 29 • 6M

My Struggles To Say No

#51 | "Normalizing No" and reflections on the book 4,000 Weeks: A Mortals Guide To Time Management (including my full highlights)

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Kelly Vohs
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Inbox Zero

The first email was sent on October 29, 1969. Yesterday, 347 billion emails hit inboxes worldwide - in one day. There are only just over 2.5 billion active email addresses. You do the math. That’s over 100 emails per account per day.

It’s not simply that you never get through your email; it’s that the process of “getting through your email” actually generates more email.

This is from David Burkeman’s book 4,000 Weeks: A Mortals Guide to Time Management.

While the list of books I’d like to read is more than I’ll get to in this lifetime, I’m making it a point to revisit the ones that matter.

4,000 Weeks is one such book. I don’t want to say this is a life-changing book, but that’s only because of my stubbornness and a little ego. It has changed my life or at least helped sharpen the pencil I’ll use to sketch what’s left.

These pages served as a reminder of what is important and a curb to the misdirected parts of my ambition. I find his straightforwardness refreshing. Points like this:

In the long run, we’re all dead

He goes on,

Assuming you live to eighty, you’ll have about four thousand weeks.

“I want to live forever”

The other night at dinner, we went around the table and asked each other what superpower we wanted. One of the boys said, “I want to live forever.”

Reflecting later, I thought about how life would change if I knew there was no end. If I had unlimited time to do what I wanted, would I make different choices?

It’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of living forever. Please take a moment, and think about it. You stop aging, and you exist - forever. Time becomes an inexhaustible resource.

An infinite resource has little value. You likely say yes to most things because you have time to get to it all. This gets to the crux of Burkeman’s point. You have 4,000 weeks on this little blue ball. If you are like me, maybe you have 2,000 left.

Now, be honest with yourself. Do you make choices as if you are immortal? Or mortal?

My answer is I make choices as if I’m going to live forever, and I can do it all. What’s amazing is I know what it feels like to look death in the eye. Yet, I say yes. And yes. And yes.

I’m making choices, like prioritizing inbox zero or clearing the decks, instead of facing the reality of my limited time and focusing on what matters.

The Most Precious Resource

I have long subscribed to the idea that I can do it all - with enough hustle, I can get it done. The truth is, it has the opposite effect.

The more I think I can do, the more I try to do. This leads to a full calendar with little room for the highest priorities at work or home.


Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.

At work, I say yes, and at home, I say yes. Then, unfairly to all participating parties, I react negatively when there is no space. It’s not their fault. It’s my fault. I keep saying yes, thinking I can do it all. That’s not possible. I have to set boundaries.

Burkeman leans into this exact point:

Paradox of limitation: The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.

He goes on,

We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.

Let’s Normalize “No”

Why do I pack my calendar full and wrestle with my inbox incessantly? Ego? An unhealthy belief that I can do it all with something to prove? A desire to not let people down? Probably yes to all three.

The truth is, you won’t be able to do everything. You won’t get to all of those ticktockagrammable places. Try as you may. You may get to inbox zero, but it will fill back up. If you embrace your mortality, does that change the choices you make? It does for me.

I’m not suggesting we spend our days avoiding our work, but rather don’t let distraction or ego deprioritize what matters - whether at work, in the community, or at home. There will ALWAYS be more to do, and there won’t always be more time to do it.

Intellectually, we know need to prioritize, say no, and set boundaries. The struggle is normalizing no. Can we give others the space to say no without feeling shame or guilt? Their capacities are limited, their priorities are unique, and their struggles are real.

Let’s turn this on its head and help each other say no. We are in this together.

Can we give each other that grace?

Just a thought this week. You can see my full highlights from 4,000 weeks here. Take care out there.