The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

I Think It’s Important to Say ‘No’ a Lot More Often

Happiness interview: Mike Vardy.

Happiness interview: Mike Vardy.

I got to know Mike Vardy through his work on LifeHack and Productivityist, “the blog for productivity enthusiasts” (and aren’t we all productivity enthusiasts?). He has a new book, The Front Nine: How To Start the Year You Want Anytime You Want, about how to create a path to success on your own terms. (The title and the book make use of the metaphor of golf.)

This is a subject with a lot of relevance for happiness, so I was interested to hear what Mike had to say.

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Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Mike: It is the act of writing that fuels everything else that I do. It gives me the opportunity to spend quality time with my family, it gives me the opportunity to earn a living, and it gives me the opportunity to lead out all of the creativity I have stored within myself. The reason it makes me happier every time out is because I’m getting better and better at it every single time I put words to screen. I feel as if I am stretching myself with every single blog post, print article, or book page that I write — I’m looking to bring more to the table so I can offer better solutions to my readers. It really is like that old Beatles song, “Getting Better.” The difference is, it started out pretty great already.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

I know that the path to happiness certainly isn’t direct. When I was 18 I have ideas in my head of how I was going to be happy as well as the route I was going to take to get to that level of happiness. It turns out that I couldn’t have been more wrong. My journey to where I am now has taken me through large corporations, small computer shops, the stage, and non-profit organizations, until I finally wound up taking various aspects from all of my experiences and putting them to great use with the work I’m doing now. And I couldn’t be happier with how wrong I was.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I still tend to take on too much. By taking on too many things, I actually impact the things that I really want to do. The result is a less than happy experience across many fronts, not just work. I think it’s important to say “no” a lot more often than we do, and I’m still working at that. I’m getting better, but I’ve got a ways to go. As my friend Patrick Rhone has said, “Saying no is actually saying yes to other things.” So in a way, I need to say “no” to things more often so that I can really say “yes” to the right things more often.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

I tend to get stuck in the middle from time to time (as many of us do), which impedes my happiness. So I have this little screed I rhyme off that I like to call The Midway Manifesto:

My mission is to reflect on the beginning of the hole, see what I’ve not done and reboot it and see what I’ve done and celebrate it. Looking forward I will take what’s left to be done and do it, and with the rest of my plans I will stand firm. I’ll add things as I need and make sure that I heed the voice that tells me, “I must get to complete.”

The “hole” is either the task, goal, or project, so by saying this I foster the fortitude I need to move forward. Done makes me happy, and this definitely helps get me to “done.”

 If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?

I’ve got two activities I enjoy taking part in when I need to give myself a jolt of happiness. One is to go for a run — it clears my mind and makes me feel good in the process. It also tends to get the physical and creative juices flowing, which puts right back in a great mindset. The next thing i like to do is simply hang out with positive people. That can be in the form of doing something online (like interacting on social networks) or offline (going to a pub or having a coffee with some local friends). Connecting with something other than the work is a great way to boost my happiness.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness? 

The things I see that detracts from people’s happiness is the notion that they can — and should — do everything on their task lists. Instead of focusing on checking off the right boxes, they worry about making sure they check off a lot of them. The result of that is often a lot of “busywork” that impersonates a high level of productivity as opposed to making real progress with the things that are important to them. You’re never going to get everything done. So get the right things done. The former leads to anguish; the latter leads to an amazing life.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

I’ve had my moments of exceptional unhappiness. I’ve often made huge changes to get out of those moments. For example, when I was working for a large corporation, I wasn’t filled any longer. So rather than take small steps and bide my time, I took one massive step and got out of that situation as soon as possible. Because I was focused on getting out of that situation as quickly as I could, I made it clear-headed decisions along the way. I really work through those moments of unhappiness. Pen and paper can be so effective for this. The key when you were unhappiest find a way that will really break the pattern. For some people it can be something as small as rearranging furniture. For others it involves taking drastic action. Regardless of how you work, it is important to be aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing, and to take steps to ensure that you’re not going to be leaving yourself in a worse situation over the long-term.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

The fact that I get to be at home with my kids while I work makes me particularly happy. My wife and I have worked together to ensure that we are there for our kids as much as we can. That means helping out at the school, limited time in daycare, arranging play dates, and more. How I handle those while I work at home comes down to proper time management. I have what I call heavy-lifting days and light-lifting days. On the heavy-lifting days, my kids are out — either in daycare or at school (or both). Those are the days where I get the majority of my writing done. I use those days to get the stuff that requires focus done, so that when the light-lifting days arrive my attention can be where needs to be: on my family. On light-lifting days, I will do any low impact work — things where I can afford disruptions — while my kids are otherwise occupied. It is by setting up my days in this fashion that I can enjoy the best aspect of my home — my wife, my daughter, and my son.

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Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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