“When mental energy is allowed to follow the line of least resistance and to fall into easy channels, it is called weakness.”
James Allen (British Philosopher And Author, As A Man Thinketh)
“It is not hard work that drains off energy but emotional upheaval.”
Norman Vincent Peale (Minister And Author, The Power Of Positive Thinking)
“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.”
Vince Lombardi (Former Head Coach, Green Bay Packers)
“You’re a coward.”
My girlfriend looked at me in disgust.
She said the word “coward” with such intense finality that I believed her.
Maybe I am a coward?
I didn’t say anything back. I stood there silently and ate it. Like a big scoop of spoiled ice cream right into my gut.
Nothing feels worse than someone calling you a coward.
There’s no good way to respond to being called a coward either. It’s one of those words that stops you in your tracks.
If you say “No, I’m not” or “Nuh-uh” you pretty much confirm the fact you are one.
If you argue or defend yourself in any way, you look weak and silly. Only a coward would have to actually say he’s not a coward.
Your only real option is to stand there trying not to look dumbfounded.
She called me a coward because I told her I couldn’t go to some party. It wasn’t like a rave party it was just some small get together at a friend’s house.
I couldn’t go because I had quadruple booked myself to go to the party, work late at the office, take a consulting call, and finish writing an article in time to publish it.
The party was the thing I least wanted to do. But I had cancelled on her the week before. And the week before that.
She told me to cancel going to the office instead. I said I couldn’t because my boss would get angry.
That’s when she called me a coward.
The Real Reason People Always Say “Yes”
I didn’t want to go to the office or the party but I said “yes” to both because I didn’t want to let anyone down.
Okay, that’s not the real reason.
The real reason is that I didn’t want to miss out on anything.
I said “yes” to things a lot because I didn’t want to miss out.
I said “yes” to working late because I didn’t want to miss out on getting a promotion.
I said “yes” to going to the party because I didn’t want to miss out on the inside jokes (or become the inside joke).
Every “yes” was a concession.
Little concessions bleeding out of me everywhere I went while I ran in circles trying to clean up the droplets.
I was caught in this vicious cycle of saying “yes” and then trying to back out without pissing anyone off.
I thought that doing more was the key to getting ahead.
Saying “yes” to more hours at the office meant more money. And more money meant I would move ahead in life.
Saying “yes” to what other people wanted me to do meant more approval. And more approval meant I would move ahead in life.
When my schedule got crammed…
I’d dig into the latest productivity tricks to open up a few more minutes in my day. Then, I’d immediately cram those minutes full of new obligations
I never got ahead though. I just got tired.
I felt like one of those cartoon animals trying to run forward really fast but just digging into the ground instead. The faster my feet would pedal, the further I would sink down.
I was afraid of saying “no” though. I was afraid of missing out. I was afraid of being the guy on the outside.
I was a coward.
Without Energy, Willpower Dies
Willpower is your ability to control your own behavior and it relies exclusively on mental energy.
When you’re distracted, your willpower suffers.
When you’re tired, your willpower suffers.
Whenever you make a decision, your willpower suffers.
Think of willpower as a kind of instinctual override, a way to interrupt your brain’s automatic processing in order to do something else.
If you’re hungry and come upon a table of free doughnuts, the primitive part of your brain will process the event and say, “EAT!” But the more advanced decision-making part of your brain will tell you to keep walking and not take the bait.
Willpower is simply your ability to inhibit your brain’s natural inclinations. It’s your ability to make good decisions.
A study published by the Journal of Personality shows that each person has his or her own individual willpower limit and this limit is depleted by mental strain.
Another study by professor Baba Shiv at Stanford University shows exactly how this works…
The experiment involved two groups of students—people in the first group were given a two-digit number to remember, while people in the second group were given a seven-digit number to remember.
Both groups were instructed to remember the number, walk down a long hallway, and repeat the number to an administrator at the end of the hall.
Halfway down the hall, a young woman waited by a table with a large plate of fresh fruit on one side and a large plate of pastries on the other side.
She asked each participant to choose which snack they would like to eat after completing the memorization task.
The people in the second group, those laboring under the strain of remembering a seven-digit number, chose a pastry far more often than those who were remembering the two-digit number.
Your willpower consists of a set number of decision-making units.
These units affect your ability to not only make good decisions, but to focus and concentrate in general.
The only way to restore your decision-making units is to sleep. Here’s a more practical example…
Think back to when you were in college cramming to finish a term paper late at night.
You’re exhausted but want to finish one last paragraph so you keep writing the same simple sentence over and over again but you just can’t get it right.
Finally, you give up.
Then you go to bed, wake up fresh, and finish the sentence in seconds. That’s how it works.
Your Mind Is Your Most Valuable Asset
Nothing can save you from your own fatigued mind.
Time cannot—hours don’t matter when your brain is incapable of making good decisions. Money cannot—dollars can’t buy you clarity or stamina.
If you’ve ever sat in front of the TV for 30 minutes to watch something you’ve seen before because you’re tired, you know time is not your most valuable asset.
If you’ve ever bought anything beyond food, water, shelter or your other basic needs, you know money is not your most valuable asset.
Energy is your most valuable asset.
The problem is this asset depreciates rapidly every day.
Reports by the Harvard Business Review and the Cambridge University Press show that you only get about 90-120 minutes of peak mental energy and 5 hours or less of near peak mental energy each day, respectively.
For the rest of the day, your mental energy levels are medium to low at best.
The good news is if you get enough sleep, your assets get replenished 100%. Studies in Sleep Medicine show that the right amount of REM sleep (4-6 cycles) completely restores your mental energy each day.
Even if you start each day at 100%, your mental energy is going to drop quickly.
How To Win The Battle For Your Mind
Everyone wants your attention. Attention is the world’s hottest commodity.
People are going to try to steal it, drain it, and suck it up every second you’re awake.
Yet, very few people protect it.
People carefully protect the money in their bank and the time in their calendar but they do little to protect their attention.
Attention is the gateway to your mental energy. Where your attention goes, your mental energy flows.
Taking back your mental energy is not a cakewalk. It’s a dogfight.
Other people are not going to just give you your attention back. They are going to fight viciously to keep it.
Even your own mind is going to fight viciously to keep you distracted.
All the “yeses” you’ve said and all the obligations you’ve taken on in the past have created a kind of psychological immune system.
This immune system has evolved to protect its homeostasis. It does this by rejecting any attempts you make to change where you put your attention.
Your psychological immune system likes staying distracted by the same old things.
It likes the approval it gets by saying “yes” to other people. It likes the comfort of drama and gossip. It likes being a small part of everything and a big part of nothing.
You need to kill this immune system. Here’s how…
1. Be okay with missing out because you’re never missing out on much.
Feeling like you’re about to miss out on something is painful.
Your mind hates pain.
So, when someone invites you to party or asks you to work late or tells you about a million dollar idea, your mind will feel the urge to jump at this “opportunity” in order to avoid the pain of missing out.
Ignore this urge. Build up a resistance against it by practicing saying “no” to everything first.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have only one chance to say “yes” to things.
In most cases, you can say “no” to an opportunity at first and say “yes” later.
2. Be accountable but don’t worry about being counted on.
It’s important to be accountable to your commitments.
Not all commitments must last forever.
If you change your mind or grow out of a commitment, don’t be afraid to talk about it openly and find a better way forward.
Mistakes happen. Some “yeses” turn out to be bad decisions. When this happens, take responsibility for your failure, learn from it, and move on.
The best way to avoid making bad commitments is to stop being afraid of letting other people down.
If someone wants you to commit to something but it doesn’t feel right in your gut, say “no.”
Quit worrying about other people being able to count on you. You weren’t meant to be counted on for everything all the time.
The purpose of your life is not to be a punching bag for other people’s problems.
You have your own life to live.
Don’t let your desire to please someone else disrupt your freedom to say “no” and take care of yourself first.
3. Feel a sense of success when you say “no,” not a sense of failure.
You’ve been trained since birth to say “yes” to everything.
Every time your parents or teachers told you to do something and you said “yes” and did it, you were rewarded.
Now, you see saying “yes” as the key to getting rewarded.
This is a mistake.
Saying “yes” without discretion brings failure, not success.
Set “no” as your default response.
Start rewarding yourself for saying “no.”
Every time you say “no” to meaningless drama and useless activities, you get one step closer to your own personal goals.
4. Refuse to accept handouts from other people no matter how well meaning.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch. The law of reciprocity prevents it.
Under this law, you can never take anything from anyone without feeling a strong urge to give them something in return.
This desire to give back to someone who gives you something, even if you don’t want or need what they’re giving you, is intensely distracting.
The law of reciprocity will annihilate your attention.
The only solution is to be very deliberate with what you accept from people. This includes praise.
If your boss praises you for your good work, be careful how much weight you give his praise because it could make you feel like you have to say “yes” to working next weekend.
Instead, keep praise in its place.
Own it, but don’t rely on it or feel like you have to live up to it by blindly saying “yes” to something in return.
5. Ruthlessly cut all gossip and meaningless drama out of your life.
Nothing will drive your mental energy levels down faster than having an emotional blowout.
Hard work is not tiring.
Defending yourself against gossip at the office is tiring.
Fighting with your relationship partner is tiring.
Falling out with a friend or family member is tiring.
These things are exhausting because they require extremely high levels of mental effort to engage in.
The solution is simple—stop engaging in emotional drama.
The only way to avoid an emotional blowout is to stay off the emotional blowout bandwagon.
When you gossip, when you engage in meaningless drama, you put yourself on the bandwagon.
Getting on the bandwagon will feel good at first. It will be exciting. Unpredictable. Fun.
Then, the wagon will start to spin out of control.
It will go off a cliff, blow up, and obliterate everything in its path.
Stay off the blowout bandwagon. And stay away from people who try to get you to jump on it.
6. Walk away from energy draining people forever.
Negative and manipulative people are like energy vacuums.
They suck and suck and suck until everyone else’s energy is empty.
Don’t keep these people in your life. Don’t try to understand them or change them. Just delete them.
Energy draining people need the energy of others to survive. They grow stronger by feeding on your attention.
They play the victim, act out, and create all kinds of drama to steal away your attention.
Stop letting them hijack your focus.
Take back your mental energy by walking away from them once and for all.
Ignore their pleas to come back. Protect your mental energy. Stay away for good.
7. Surround yourself with energizing people and activities.
There are some people and activities you should say “yes” to.
Your goal is to say “no” to everything that drains your energy without a productive result, not to say “no” to everything in life.
The key is that you need to be deliberate with who and what you let into your life.
Find people who energize you and keep you on track towards your goals. Then, hold onto them.
Find activities that energize you and bring you closer to your goals. Then, keep executing them.
Your mental energy is going to plummet throughout the day. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s only bad if it’s being used up on crap that doesn’t matter. Start protecting your attention. Start making your mental energy count. Save your willpower for positive people and productive actions. Use it up on the best things in life, not the worst things.
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