This article was published in my newsletter several years ago. I am re-publishing it now as it continues to be very relevant.
I can’t remember who it was — but a year or two ago someone wrote on one of the email lists to which I belong that she had learned never to say “yes” unless she could say it wholeheartedly. Whoever it was, I owe her a debt of thanks because it is one of the best lessons that I have ever learned.
The context was how easy it is for our lives to fill up with responsibilities that we have taken on more or less reluctantly. When someone asks us to do something, it is often difficult to say “no.” So we end up saying “yes” against our better judgement. And one of the reasons why it is so easy to say “yes” against our better judgement is because we often don’t have a clear and easy way to tell what our better judgement is. The other person will often come up with highly persuasive reasons which make us feel that we will be uncaring or ungrateful or illogical or mean or reckless or whatever if we don’t agree with them. And since we don’t want to feel any of these things we say “yes” reluctantly — and regret it later!
By having a clear rule that we only say “yes” when we can say it wholeheartedly we can cut through all the guilt and manipulation and find the only thing that really matters — our own knowledge of what is right for us.
I have used this method a lot over the last year and more, and found it invaluable. So for instance the other day someone rang me up and asked me if I wanted to join a local group that met every month. I really didn’t want to but had the feeling that I ought to do it and that I’d be letting the other person down if I didn’t. As I wavered on the brink of accepting (and regretting it) I suddenly found myself saying “I have a rule that I never commit myself to anything unless I can commit myself wholeheartedly, and I don’t feel I can do so with this.” To my surprise the other person, though obviously disappointed, accepted my reason like a lamb!
I have also learned to extend the principle further than the original context. Now when faced with any decision, I always ask myself “Could I do this wholeheartedly?” And if the answer is “no”, I don’t do it. Faced with a decision between two or more alternatives I ask myself “Which of these could I do wholeheartedly?” and if the answer is “neither”, I then ask myself “OK then, what could I do wholeheartedly?” and start looking for further alternatives.
Another very valuable use that I’ve found for the principle is to use it to evaluate my daily actions. So I ask myself “What could I do wholeheartedly right now?” This is very effective because I’ve discovered that it is very difficult to do anything wholeheartedly when I know I should be doing something else. So the question acts as a very good way of filtering out busy work, displacement activities and general wheel-spinning. And it greatly increases the commitment that I bring to my real work actions and the enjoyment that I get from my leisure and personal activities.
So what could I do wholeheartedly right now? Ah, yes, send this newsletter out and then go to bed!