If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

“A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” So said Mahatma Gandhi, and we all know how his conviction played out on the world stage. But what is less well known is how this same discipline played out privately with his own grandson, Arun Gandhi.

Arun grew up in South Africa. When he was a young boy, he was beaten up twice: once for being too white and once for being too black. Still angry, Arun was sent to spend time with his grandfather. In an interview with Arun, he told me that his grandfather was in demand from many important people, yet he still prioritized his grandson, spending two hours a day for 18 months just listening to Arun. It proved to be a turning point in Arun’s life.

I had the opportunity to apply Gandhi’s example of prioritization to my own life, hours before one of my daughters was born. I felt pressure to go to a client meeting the next day. But on this occasion, I knew what to do. It was clearly a time to be there for my wife and child. So, when asked to attend the meeting, I said with all the conviction I could muster…


To my shame, while my wife lay in the hospital with my hours-old baby, I went to the meeting. Afterward, my colleague said, “The client will respect you for making the decision to be here.” But the look on the clients’ faces mirrored how I felt. What was I doing there?! I had not lived true to Gandhi’s saying. I had said “yes” to please.

As it turned out, exactly nothing came of the client meeting. And even if the client had respected my choice, and key business opportunities had resulted, I would still have struck a fool’s bargain. My wife supported me and trusted me to make the right choice under the circumstances, and I had opted to deprioritize her and my child.

Why did I do it? I have two confessions:

First, I allowed social awkwardness to trump making the right decision. I wasn’t forced to attend the meeting. Instead, I was so anxious to please that even awkward silent pauses on the phone were too much for me. In order to stop the social pain, I said “yes” when I knew the answer should be “no.”

Second, I believed that “I had to make this work.” Logically, I knew I had a choice, but emotionally, I felt that I had no choice. That one corrupted assumption psychologically removed many of the actual choices available to me.

What can you do to avoid the mistake of saying “yes” when you know the answer should be “no”?

First, separate the decision from the relationship. Sometimes these seem so interconnected, we forget there are two different questions we need to answer. By deliberately dividing these questions, we can make a more conscious choice. Answer the question, “What is the right decision?” and then “How can I communicate this as kindly as possible?”

Second, watch your language. Every time we say, “I have to take this call” or “I have to send this piece of work off” or “I have to go to this client meeting,” we are assuming that previous commitments are nonnegotiable. Every time you use the phrase “I have to” over the next week, stop and replace it with “I choose to.” It can feel a little odd at first — and in some cases it can even be gut-wrenching (if we are choosing the wrong priority). But ultimately, using this language reminds us that we are making choices, which enables us to make a different choice.

Third, avoid working for or with people who don’t respect your priorities. It may sound simplistic, but this is a truly liberating rule! There are people who share your values and as a result make it natural to live your priorities. It may take a while to find an employment situation like this, but you can set your course to that destination immediately.

Saying “yes” when we should be saying “no” can seem like a small thing in the moment. But over time, such compromises can create a life of regrets. Indeed, an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware, who cared for people in the last 12 weeks of their lives, recorded the most often-discussed regrets. At the top of the list: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Next on the list: “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard” and “I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.” (Read the Top 5 Regrets here).

We may not develop Gandhian levels of courage immediately, but surely we can do better than having to look back on our lives and regret that we lived by someone else’s priorities.

Read the original post:  If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will – Harvard Business Review

Image Credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

11 thoughts on “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

  1. Jacob Madsen says:

    This sparked an interesting chain of thought regarding choices based on determination and doing what we feel is truly significant and of importance contrasted with the frustration of acquiescence based compromise. I find myself frustrated today, and refreshed by this article.

  2. Jan Drasnar says:

    Thanks for such great article, even though most of readers know this but not many say “no”.

  3. ferit saygın vural says:

    Dear Greg,

    I really liked your post. “Yes” and “No” are really hard words for the one like me who always lives others’ lives and tries to make the most for others. I guess too much of “empathy” is neither good for ourselves nor for others. It secretly harms us. We all know that in long term, wrong yess and nos fail so why to say “yes” when u should be saying “no”. Above all, the nurse’s regret list influenced me a lot.

    Here is my 5;

    I wish to not compare myself with others
    I wish to live my own life and decisions
    I wish to live simply
    I wish to be an archeologist and a history guru
    I wish to spend more time with my family

    I recommend everybody to write down their 5 and regret to not having implemented any of them. Very powerful post. It was a moment of enlightment for myself.

    Thanks a lot, Sunny roads

  4. Eric Darst says:

    If I may offer a corollary to your thought – An answer of “no” is vastly better than no answer. So many people wish to avoid their perception of confrontation at the expense of common courtesy. But in the long run it releases both parties and allows them to move on.

  5. Lawrence Manickam says:

    Once again, Excellent Article.

    Several times, I know the answer is ‘No’ for a particular situation and I end up saying ‘yes’. It’s time for me to realize this and change.

  6. Pingback: [Deep Dive] This Year, Resolve to be COURAGEOUS | Posh Coworking

  7. Md Ruhul Amin says:

    Socrates statements ” Know Yourself” which is very important about the article. Specially when man cannot explore himself as a human being and does not related with a positive thinking, then he/she would be unessential part of the world. So man should glorify himself by his own personality, education, wisdom, morality as well as human kind nature.

  8. Nelu Mbingu says:

    Great article!

    I do struggle with being able to say no to work and yes to family. I often find myself choosing to spent Friday nights working on my computer instead of going out with my sisters. I have to work out what my real priorities are, and to learn to respect them.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    P.S: I didn’t even know Gandhi had a son! We learn something new every day don’t we :)

  9. Amanda Webb says:

    Greg, this is a wonderfully honest and vulnerable article. I appreciate you sharing your own story so candidly. I have been practicing the concept of ‘self worth’ with great focus for the last 18 months, and that has allowed me to get stronger with saying ‘No’.


  10. Eleni Mahagwe says:

    Thank you so much, I now have realized that commitment to work has been depriving me of quality time with my family. From now on my family should come first in my daily life because time with my family leads to a happy , cheerful life and gives one a sense of responsibility as a parent. Impressed.