“I have not cooked or driven in the last 24 years.” These are not my words. These are words from one of the behavioral experts that I closely follow. At first I thought, how do you even say that in public? Being a man maybe he could be easily forgiven. Listening to him further I however realized there is much more to it. In his words he has learnt how to focus on high value activities. At this point I might need to wear a helmet before I openly contradict our highly valued African culture.

As I type this I am told a mutual friend has just passed on due to Covid-19 complications. Each day I realize how short life is. I also realize that this is the only life that we have to live. Why then don’t we focus on things that matter. We have so many things that we would want to do in this life. We however do not have all the time neither do we have all the energy to do them. I can only hope that on his last moment, he did not have any regrets. That he was proud of what he actually focused on each day. In the words of H.L Mencken, “You cannot do anything about the length of your life but you can do something about its width and depth.”

The behavioral expert’s words reminded me of my grandmothers words. November used to be a busy month in my childhood. It was time to harvest maize. We had targets to hit, either on the size of land to harvest each day or a date by which we should have finished harvesting. One day we got to my grandmother’s house tired, sad and soaked in rain. We had not hit the target. Needless to say a tough ‘lecture’ was awaiting at home courtesy of my mum. Grandmothers have special grace though. In her words she said, “Get some food from that shelf and eat, even if you harvest one maize cob each day per person, it will not take one year to finish harvesting.”

I admire the wisdom of old age. The calmness and poise with which they approach matters. They have lived long enough to know how we worry about unnecessary things. How we spend sleepless nights over things that will not matter in the next few years. One day my grandmother found my cousin busy cleaning the house in the evening. My cousin was obviously tired after a long day. In my grandmother’s words, “It does not matter how hard you clean today, it will still get dirty tomorrow. Rest or do something more worthwhile. You will not die if you sleep with dirty utensils.” If my grandmother lived in today’s world, she would have been the first one to forward me this message on WhatsApp; “If you can get a house keeper, please get one, if you can get a cook, please get one, if you can get a driver, please get one. Always look for easier ways to do things. Life is not about suffering.”

Life may not be that simple today. We have much more to juggle. This content clicked in my mind early this week. I was facilitating a training on emotional intelligence. A young lady asked, how do I say No to the many requests to mentor young people from my former schools. Listening to her keenly she had enough reasons. She has enough on her plate from work to personal life. This led me back to the thought of knowing your highest values. In the words of Roy Disney, “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

Our biggest fear in saying No, is losing out on something or someone who we think we may need later. We however cannot serve everything and everyone. The fear of saying No is what gets us overwhelmed by people and things that we do not need. In the words of Steve Job, “Its only by saying No that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.” It may however not be that easy. How do you know that you are saying No to the ‘right’ thing? The starting point is knowing what really matters to you. You can then unapologetically drop what is not adding value or what is not important to your life. This means learning to say No to yourself as well and redirect your energy to what matters.

In the case of my scholar, cooking and driving are low priority activities he would rather use that time to do something else. We may judge him now. However what matters is what he feels when he looks back at life and sees what he has been able to do with that time. Let me give you a guide based on how I answered the young lady;

1. Make a list of the things you do on a normal day including weekends
2. Note to include activities such as commuting, cooking or eating
3. Allocate time to each of those activities
4. Convert the time to a percentage of the total time
5. What percentage of time do mundane tasks such as commuting, shopping, cooking, eating, chatting……take?

What then makes you think that you do not have enough time to go back to school, hang out with your kids, mentor others, keep fit or travel? The only reason why we are constantly out of time and constantly fatigued is because we do not prioritize our high value tasks. If we know what matters to us, then we prioritize it over other mundane tasks. Note that definition of mundane depends on you. If cooking is a high priority in your life, then do whatever it takes to keep it on your high value list. All that matters is that you spend most of your time on what matters to you.

If you value your peace, then you will find it easy to drop the things and people that take it away. If you value your growth, rest, family then you will find a way of dropping the low priority tasks at the expense of what you value. We have enough time to do what matters. It is up to us to determine what really matters and unapologetically fight for it. Instead of working hard to make ends meet work on reducing your ends. In the words of Sandra Bullock, “My goal is to remember every place I have been, do things I love and Not say Yes when I don’t mean it.”

When you sit on that rocking chair on your 80th birthday, you want to look back and smile. You want to know that you did what was right by you even if it was not right by other people’s standards. Fight for you as long as you do not step on others. All along I think my grandmother meant to say “No amount of security is worth the suffering of a mediocre life chained to a routine that has killed your dreams.” Maya Mendoza

If you want more time, freedom and energy start saying No.

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