This equation may look like nonsense, perhaps it reminds you of a Zen Koan. Yet there is a truth contained in this riddle that is important for those who are so busy that they wish there was a 25th hour in the day. How is the time-pressure that many of us face related to the riddle Yes = No? It took me 30 years to figure this out—I can be a slow learner—but I can explain it in a few minutes.

Suppose that you are extremely busy, your plate is full, and every minute of the day is filled with activities. Somebody comes along who asks you take on a new activity, and let’s suppose that you have the freedom to say either Yes or No to this new task. Let’s assume that you say Yes. Since you are already overloaded, taking on this new activity means you will need to reduce the time spent on another activity. For example, you might sleep less, you might postpone finishing a report, or you might spend less time socializing or exercising. In other words, by saying Yes to the new activity, you will say No to something else. The sad truth is that in this situation you can’t avoid saying No to something, this is a game you cannot win when you are overloaded. That is the meaning of Yes = No: by saying Yes to a new activity you will say No to something else.

The trap is that the new activity to which we say Yes to is usually tangible and well-defined, but it is not so clear what we are saying No to. To make matters worse, we often are optimistic and think we can take on a new activity without having to abandon, delay, or reduce something else.

Here is a suggestion for using Yes = No to make decisions how to spend your time. If a new activity presents itself, you could imagine what you are saying No to by accepting the new activity. Perhaps you will delay the submission of a report, or you might spend less time with friends. This is, of course, somewhat arbitrary, but by imagining what you might not do by taking on a new activity, you can make a balanced decision whether to accept or decline because it allows you to make a comparison between the new activity and the current activity that you will give a lower priority. The outcome of this comparison can be that you accept the new activity, because it deserves a higher priority than the one you will stop or delay. But now you have made a thought-out decision what is most important, rather than optimistically taking on something for which you don’t have the time. Knowing that you cannot avoid saying No to something may also reduce any feelings of guilt you may have by declining a new activity. Try this way of making decisions for a while. And if you think you might forget, then print out the Koan Yes = No and hang it over your desk or make it your screen saver. We all need reminders!

By the way, here is an interesting thought experiment: suppose the time-fairy would give you a 25th hour in the day, how would you spend that hour?

Roel Snieder

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