Think of all the incredible things you could do if you had more time: travel the world, read books, play games, spend more time with family and friends. We all wish we had more time. “What wonderful things I could make,” we say. “What lovely places I would go!”

Time is a man-made construct. It’s something we made up to give us a sense of bearing. All that exists is now. Tomorrow never comes and yesterday is gone. There’s what we’re doing now and everything else we’re not doing. It’s as simple as that.

So why not do the things you say you’d do if you had more time? Why not go to those places right now? Simple: you can’t because you’ve filled your time. You’ve chosen to do other, more important things with your now. What you do equals what’s important to you. Your actions define your priorities. No words can mask the truth of your actions.

The Only Way to Create Time

How do you find the time to do great work? It starts with changing your language: you will never find more time. Why? Because you’re too good at filling it. You automatically fill time by habit.

Think about the last time you had a gap in your schedule. When someone asked you to do something during that time, you probably said, “Perfect! I’m available.” When was the last time you had open availability and said “No” when someone asked if you were available? If you’re like most people, probably never. Free time is meant to be filled, right?

You’ll only ever have time if you make time. The only way to create time is with a two-letter word you should know well by now: no.

Yes is not free currency, but we treat it like it is. Yes is the most expensive word in the English language, yet we give it away like it’s nothing. We say “Yes” by default and wonder why we have no time.

If you don’t have time, it’s because you’ve already spent it on something. You declare what’s important to you by how you spend your time. What you say is important doesn’t matter. Look at what you do. How do you spend your time? What you spend your time on is what’s important to you. You always have time for what’s important to you.

Audit Your Time

It’s no different with money. You make money each month and you spend a certain amount. The act of purchasing is a declaration of importance. The things you buy are important to you. If they weren’t directly or indirectly important to you, you wouldn’t spend the money.

If you had a recurring subscription for a service you were no longer using, would you continue to pay for it? Would you shrug your shoulders and ignore the subscription, or would you cancel it? You’d cancel it, of course! Why waste money? Why spend your finite resources on something that’s no longer serving you?

It’s obvious with money, but most people don’t treat their time with the same respect. Many of us keep recurring commitments that no longer serve us. The reason you have no time in a day is that you’ve filled it with recurring commitments. You have things you do, events you attend, people you hang out with, and you do it all on autopilot. You don’t even think about them anymore. Those are just things you do. They have become your new baseline.

“Oh, well, of course, there’s movie night on Tuesdays, book club on Wednesdays, and I have my favorite shows I watch back-to-back on Thursdays.”

All of these are costly subscriptions. They’re recurring payments just like your credit card. If you never audited your credit card for extraneous purchases, you’d bleed yourself dry!

Indefinite commitments are the hardest to break. Certainly, keep any and all commitments you made to anyone for the specific amount of time you promised, but vague and open-ended commitments with no clearly defined end are another story. A long time ago, you said you’d do something every Friday, but does that mean you promised to do it for the rest of your life until you die? Are you a liar if you don’t? These are questions we subconsciously ponder. It’s easier to leave the recurring events on the calendar and then complain that you have no time. Really, you’re too scared or lazy to audit your commitments. It’s just as irresponsible as leaving recurring payments for unused subscriptions on your credit card. You need to see both as equally costly.

The right time to break an indefinite commitment is when your goals have changed. If you made a vague and indefinite commitment at some point to show up weekly to something and contribute, help, or otherwise participate, it’s not wrong for you to break that commitment if your goals have changed. You made the commitment a long time ago. Times were different. You were a different person. It was a different context. You had different goals. You weren’t saying you would do it until the day you die. If doing that thing or attending that event is not bringing you closer to the goal you have today, it’s your duty to stop doing that thing. There’s no sense in continuing to do something that no longer serves you simply because you committed to doing it a long time ago when your situation was different.

You’ve committed yourself into a corner. You’ve locked up too much of your allotted twenty-four hours in a day. If you want to make time, you’re going to have to start saying “No.” It’s not just new things that you need to say “No” to; it’s existing things. Go down the line and audit every single thing you do each hour, day, week, and month. Ask yourself, “Is this getting me closer to my goal?” If it’s not, get rid of it.

Create a “No” List

Make a list of things to say “No” to. You need an actual list of “No’s.” Your litmus test is: “Is this getting me closer to my goal?” Stop doing what’s not taking you closer to your goal. Things are either taking you closer to your goal or they’re taking you further away. There’s no middle ground. Anything you believe to be middle ground is taking you away from your goal.

What are you saying “No” to? You have to shift from saying “Yes” automatically to saying “No” automatically. The time is there, and you do have the time, but you’ve given it all away. You need to reclaim it, and the word no is the only tool you have for creating time.

If you’re saying you don’t have time, you’re not being honest with yourself. What you have is a lack of clarity in what you want and time commitments that reflect that lack of clarity.

What you want needs to be abundantly clear to you. If you’re trying to do too many different things, you’ll spread yourself thin and accomplish nothing. Get clear on what you want to accomplish and restructure your commitments to reflect it.

Sometimes, it’s easiest just to wipe your calendar clean and start from scratch. What if you quit all of the things that are taking up your time and started over? What if you committed only to things that brought you closer to where you wanted to go?

Own Your Role

We default to “Yes.” We say, “Yes, I have time on my schedule, so of course I’ll do it.” The first thing you need to do is take ownership of your situation. Don’t shirk responsibility; take responsibility. Seek responsibility. If you want to continue to feel helpless and overwhelmed, then blame everyone and everything else and make excuses for why you don’t have time. If you want to be free, gain control of your life, and get your time back, you have to take responsibility. If you’re not willing to take responsibility, how are you going to effect change in your own life? You can control only what you’re responsible for, so take responsibility for everything!

The thing about excuses and responsibility is you’ll find whichever one you’re looking for. You don’t have time because of the choices you’ve made. You don’t have time because of the commitments you’ve made. You don’t have time because you’ve said “Yes” too much. It’s your fault and no one else’s. No one else is responsible for your lack of time. Take ownership and take charge.

It’s hard to say “No” because we often feel a sense of obligation and don’t want to offend anyone. We feel bad and don’t want to disappoint people. While no can be a hard word to say, it’s the only tool we have for creating more time.

Yes fills time. No makes time.

No matter what you do, you’re going to disappoint someone. The question to ask yourself is this: Do you want to disappoint other people or the future version of yourself?

Pleasing everyone is just not possible. So, if you’re going to disappoint more people than you make happy, who are the people you’re trying to please? Who are the people who are important to you? How are you setting yourself up to be able to make those people happy? If you get caught up in people-pleasing and worrying about everyone else’s disappointment when you say “No,” it will keep you from making the people who matter in your life happy.

Employ the Gut Check Test

The next time you’re considering saying “Yes” to a particular opportunity, use the Gut Check Test. Imagine saying “Yes,” and immediately assess how you feel in your gut. Ask yourself:

  • Am I spending enough time with my spouse?
  • Am I spending enough time with my kids?
  • Am I spending enough time with my family?
  • Am I spending enough time to be healthy as a person (physically, mentally, or spiritually)?
  • Am I giving myself enough margin?

If your answer is “No” to any of these questions, then your answer is “No” to anything new.

Schedule Margin

You may think of margin as a luxury you don’t have time for, but margin must be seen as a necessity for your sanity. How will you ever have margin if you’re always filling up your free time? If something is important, you put it on your schedule. Similarly, if you’re ever going to have margin, you need to schedule it on your calendar and treat it as seriously as you do any commitment. Block out time by putting an event on your calendar called “margin,” “break,” or “sabbatical.” If you don’t schedule margin, it won’t happen. Other things will happen to you. Your time will be filled automatically if you don’t protect it.

You may even feel like you don’t have time to schedule margin in your life. You don’t have time to schedule margin because you don’t schedule margin. It’s a perpetual cycle. You have to be the one to break it by choosing to schedule margin even though you feel like you can’t. You will never magically have more time. You have to get ahead of it and put margin on your schedule.

Try this out today: create a new event on your calendar called “margin.” Block out an hour. Block out two hours, or an afternoon, or a day, or even a week. You’re not allowed to schedule anything else during that time. This is not free time; this is margin. There’s a difference. The time dedicated to margin is not free time. It’s taken up.

You can do whatever you like with your margin: sit and think, rest, relax, travel, write, plan—anything you’d like. Remember, don’t schedule anything during your margin. The margin itself is what you’re scheduling. Anything you do during that time is up to you, but there should be no obligations during that time whatsoever.

You will be amazed at the clarity that comes from this blocked-off time. A moment in your day when you’re not rushing from one thing to the next will feel incredible. Actually, at first it will feel very wrong. You might even feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty. This is very important time. It is a necessity, not a luxury. Avoiding burnout and stress is not a luxury; it’s survival. Enjoy this time!

Key Takeaways

  • There will only ever be twenty-four hours in a day. Every great accomplishment was made by someone with the same amount of time that you have.
  • Review all of your commitments. Are you spending time on things that are getting you closer to your goal?
  • The next time you’re considering saying “Yes” to a particular opportunity, use the Gut Check Test. Imagine saying “Yes,” and immediately assess how you feel in your gut. Ask yourself:
    • Am I spending enough time with my spouse?
    • Am I spending enough time with my kids?
    • Am I spending enough time with my family?
    • Am I spending enough time to be healthy as a person (physically, mentally, or spiritually)?
    • Am I giving myself enough margin?
  • If your answer is “No” to any of the questions above, then your answer is “No” to anything new.