In the movie Up in The Air, George Clooney’s character is a white-collar whose job is to fire people. His name is Ryan, and he’s a representative for a company that handles all the legal aspects of letting people go. When company A wants to let go of someone but doesn’t have the nerve to handle the process on their own, they call Ryan from company B, and he shows up with his leaflet and a little package explaining the next available steps for the employee. He has a quick meeting with the person being fired, usually in a pale, neon-lit meeting room, tells them they’ve been let go, and then moves on to the next one.
Ryan’s job requires him to be on planes all the time, hopping from company to company. He has no wife, no kids, and never really has time for family. He has a pretty dismal life. One thing Ryan does to kill time (and to earn extra cash) is giving conferences. There are 2 conference scenes in the movie, both with the same speech. I believe that speech does a great job at encapsulating some very important points about relationships, so I will quote it at length here.
How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to feel the straps on your shoulders. Feel ’em? Now I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life. You start with the little things. The things on shelves and in drawers, the knick-knacks, the collectibles. Feel the weight as that adds up. Then you start adding larger stuff, clothes, table-top appliances, lamps, linens, your TV.
The backpack should be getting pretty heavy now. And you go bigger. Your couch, bed, your kitchen table. Stuff it all in there. Your car, get it in there. Your home, whether it’s a studio apartment or a two bedroom house. I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now try to walk. It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? This is what we do to ourselves on a daily basis. We weigh ourselves down until we can’t even move. And make no mistake, moving is living.
Now, I’m gonna set that backpack on fire. What do you want to take out of it? What do you want to take out of it? Photos? Photos are for people who can’t remember. Drink some ginkgo and let the photos burn. In fact, let everything burn and imagine waking up tomorrow with nothing. It’s kind of exhilarating, isn’t it?
Now, this is gonna be a little difficult, so stay with me. You have a new backpack. Only this time, I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office, and then you move into the people that you trust with your most intimate secrets. Your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend or your girlfriend.
You get them into that backpack. And don’t worry. I’m not gonna ask you to light it on fire. Feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake — your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. Do you feel the straps cutting into your shoulders?
All those negotiations and arguments, and secrets and compromises. You don’t need to carry all that weight. Why don’t you set that bag down? Some animals were meant to carry each other, to live symbiotically for a lifetime — star crossed lovers, monogamous swans. We are not those animals. The slower we move, the faster we die. We are not swans. We’re sharks.
Now let me say right away, I don’t agree with everything Ryan says here. But I do think he has a one very interesting, crucial, absolutely essential point: your relationships are the heaviest components in your life. His message is to get rid of those relationships as much as possible, because they slow you down. The last part about humans being sharks and not swans is especially dark, almost depressive. We’re not sharks, we don’t have to be completely on our own. That’s the extreme, movie-life type of approach. In reality, you don’t need to get rid of people. You just need to say no a lot more.
“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”
— Warren Buffet
You can’t actually be friends with everybody. Your life revolves around 3 main circles of people:
A lot of us spend way more time than necessary in the 3rd circle, and that’s what slows us down. If you want to make any sort of progress in a given direction, you have to say no to people, and mostly the people in the 3rd circle.
- Say no to events.
- Say no to distractions.
- Say no to late nights.
- Say no to one more drink.
- Say no to people.
Then sometimes, say yes. Say yes to things that matter, and most importantly to the people who matter. Saying yes doesn’t necessarily mean taking ownership of a task that would clutter your calendar. You can yes and direct people to other sources of help. You can say yes, but later. You can say yes, but only when you’re done with your current task.
In the book The One Thing, Gary Keller quotes the example of Steve Jobs as a great use-case of the No. In the 2 years after Steve Jobs returned to head Apple in 1997, he took the company from 350 products to 10. That’s 250 nos, not counting anything else proposed during that period. Progress is made through 99% of nos and 1% of yes.
Of course, everybody is different, and some people will need to unwind at parties more than others. Other people need the 3rd circle (the one with all the acquaintances) a lot, because their business relies on it. If you’re in real estate, or in sales, you need as many people as possible in your 3rd circle, because that’s what brings you business opportunities.
I have a friend, his name is Lance. Lance is the heart of the party. He needs to be around people a lot, to have fun, to bring everyone together. Consequently, Lance has a lot of people asking for his most precious asset: time. For the most part of his life, this wasn’t a big problem, because you can easily build an active social life around a 9–5 schedule, which is what he did.
Once you decide to start working on a side project though, it gets a lot harder to make everything work together. You can’t work on your side project after work if you have a beer with colleagues. You can’t work on Saturday if you’re hungover from the Friday bar, or if you’re joining friends at the park in the afternoon.
My point here is not that you can’t have a social life and a side hustle at the same time. Working 100% of the time at 1000% performance is a recipe for burnout and isolation, and nobody wants that. But if you don’t give more than your average to a project, it’s not going to move forward. That’s why prioritisation (saying no) is absolutely crucial.
A few months ago, my friend Lance started working on a project he’s had in mind for years. He finally decided to set his mind to it, and to get to work. What happened then to his friends? His afternoons at the park? His drinks after work? Well, he had to make choices and cut down on the social activities.
And for anyone wanting to work on their own thing, there is no other option. Prioritise, and say “No” more.
Thanks a lot for reading! I interviewed 50 productivity experts and made a 150+ page guide out of the project. This is road-tested advice from real people who get things done. Get it for free here.