How to Say “No” Gracefully and Uncommit | The Tim Ferriss Show (Podcast) | Transcription

Transcription for the video titled "How to Say “No” Gracefully and Uncommit | The Tim Ferriss Show (Podcast)".


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Intro (00:00)

At this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Can I answer your personal question? No, it is the end of the time. What if I did the opposite? I'm a cybernetic organism, living tissue over a metal entoskeleton. The Tim Ferriss Show. This episode is brought to you by Four Sigmatic, you might remember Four Sigmatic, for their Mushroom Coffee, which was created by those clever Finnish founders. When I first mentioned that coffee on this podcast, the product sold out in less than a week. It lights you up like a Christmas tree, which can be really useful. However, recently I've been testing the opposite side of the Spectrum, a new product. That is their Reishi Mushroom Elixir, to help me end my day, to get to sleep. As you guys may know, long time listeners at least, I struggled with insomnia for decades. I've largely fixed that, but still shutting off my monkey brain has never been easy, still isn't easy very often. And I've found Reishi, which I've been fascinated by for a few years now, has been very, very effective and calming. Their old formula, however, Four Sigmatic's old formula included stevia, and I like to avoid sweeteners, all sweeteners, for a host of reasons. And I then just pinged them and asked, "Hey guys, I would love to experiment with this and maybe actually suggest it, but I'd like a version without sweeteners if you'd be open to it. If you have too much of a headache, don't worry." And they are always game for experimentation, so they created a special custom version without the stevia, without sweeteners. Now it is part of my nightly routine. Their Reishi Elixir comes in single serving packets, which are perfect for travel, and in fact, I'm about to leave the country right now and I have a packet in front of me that's just going to sit in the end of my carry-on bag. You only need hot water, and it mixes very, very easily. Here's some recommended copy that they put in the read, so I'm going to read it and then I'll give you my take. "A warning for those in the experimental mindset. Reishi is strong and bitter, like any great medicine, so if the bitterness is too much, I recommend trying it with honey and/or nut milk, such as almond milk." So I'm going to say, "No, you should suck it up and you should drink the tea, because it's not that bitter, and maybe you should take the advice of old Chinese people when they're criticizing young'uns when they say, 'bunang shi kuo,' which means you're not able to eat bitterness. Bitter is, in many cases, an indication of things that help liver detoxification and so on. Not saying that's the case here, but I've tested this Reishi Elixir on family members, on friends, everybody has liked it. It's a little bit earthy, it's not that hard. So I would just say, "Suck it up and no, don't put in honey or nut milk or any of that shit. Just drink the goddamn tea, it's delicious." I think, right? If you like Pu-Air, that kind of stuff, that type of tea, you're going to dig it. So just try it. Okay, back to then my read. "If you'd like to naturally improve your sleep, both onset and quality, I think naturally, you might just enjoy this Reishi Elixir without any sweeteners. It has organic Reishi Extract, organic Fueled Mint Extract, organic Rose Hips Extract, organic Tulsi Extract." And that's it. No fancy stuff, no artificial, whatchamacallit, anything. So check it out. Go to and get 20% off this special batch. I don't know if they're going to be making much more of this since it was made specifically for you guys. So do me a favor and try it out so that they continue to be open to experimenting with me to create products for you guys specifically. Check it out. Foursigmatic. That's F-O-U-R-S-I-G-M-A-T-I-C dot com forward slash ferris, F-E-R-R-I-S-S. And get 20% off this special batch. And you must use the code "ferris" to receive your discount. F-E-R-R-I-S-S. So again, go to and then use code "ferris" for 20% off of this rare exclusive limited run of reishi mushroom elixir for nighttime routines without any sweeteners. Enjoy. Hello, my sexy little minxes. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show where it is my job, generally speaking, to deconstruct world-class performers of different types to tease out the habits, routines, favorite books, and so on that you can use. This episode I am going to showcase one of my recent favorite books. And by recent I say in the last few years there are not many books that I highlight something within nearly every page, much less than printing out those highlights, putting them together with a binder clip, and carrying around at various points to review and to journal on and so forth and so on. That book that I am referring to is Essentialism, subtitled The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. It is a fantastic book. I was very impressed the first time I read it. I've been continually impressed when I've reread it. It's had an impact in how I approach various types of problems and opportunities. So I want to share two chapters from that book with you read by the author Greg McEwen, Greg McEwen on Twitter. Let me spell that for you. It's a little tricky for most Yanks. Gregory McEwen, M-C-K-E-O-W-N, also Gregory McEwen dot com. And I'm lying. It is not Gregory McEwen dot com. It's Greg McEwen dot com. So you can figure it out. There aren't too many Greg or Gregory McEwens running around associated with Essentialism. The two chapters that I'm going to share are related to how to say no gracefully and how to uncommit. Because I think it is very easy to listen to podcasts with success stories and tactics and habits and to create an ever-growing or never-ending to-do list. You might have 73 different things on the draft version of your morning routine. And that is stressful. So I would like to help you vis-a-vis Greg and his book, Essentialism, to maybe shorten your to-do list and lengthen your not-to-do list. So again, these two chapters are from Essentialism, subtitled The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. Maybe sometime I will have Greg on the podcast discuss further. But this episode is experimental. I am considering showcasing books, not brand new books. So publishers who are listening do not hammer me with a thousand pitches. They're not going to get in, will not be on. But books that were published at least a few years ago. Showcasing books that I have read at least two times. And this is one of them. So let me know if you like it. And without further ado, how to say no gracefully, how to uncommit by Greg McEwen. Chapter 11.

Learning To Say No

A graceful "no" from Rosa Parks. (07:18)

Dare. The power of a graceful no. Courage is grace under pressure. Ernest Hemingway. The right no, spoken at the right time, can change the course of history. In just one example of many, Rosa Parks' quiet but resolute refusal to give up her seat on a segregated Montgomery bus at exactly the right moment coalesced into forces that propelled the civil rights movement. As Parks recalls, "When the bus driver saw me still sitting, he asked if I was going to stand up, and I said, 'No, I'm not.'" Contrary to popular belief, her courageous no did not grow out of a particularly assertive tendency or personality in general. In fact, when she was made a secretary to the president of the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP, she explained, "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no." Rather, her decision on the bus grew out of a deep conviction about what deliberate choice she wanted to make in that moment. When the bus driver ordered her out of her seat, she said, "I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night." She did not know how her decision would spark a movement with reverberations around the world, but she did know her own mind.

What can you learn from her? (08:42)

She knew, even as she was being arrested, that "It was the very last time that I would ever ride in humiliation of this kind." Avoiding that humiliation was worth the risk of incarceration. Indeed, to her, it was essential. It is true that we are, hopefully, unlikely to find ourselves facing a situation like the one faced by Rosa Parks. Yet, we can be inspired by her. We can think of her when we need the courage to dare to say no. We can remember her strength of conviction when we need to stand our ground in the face of social pressure to capitulate to the non-essential.

Stop making everyones problem your problem just say no (09:23)

Have you ever felt a tension between what you felt was right and what someone was pressuring you to do? Have you ever felt the conflict between your internal conviction and an external action? Have you ever said yes when you meant no simply to avoid conflict or friction? Have you ever felt too scared or timid to turn down an invitation or request from a boss, colleague, friend, neighbor, or family member for fear of disappointing them? If you have, you're not alone. Navigating these moments with courage and grace is one of the most important skills to master in becoming an essentialist, and one of the hardest. I did not set out to write a chapter about courage, but the deeper I have looked at the subject of essentialism, the more clearly I have seen courage as key to the process of elimination. Without courage, the disciplined pursuit of less is just lip service. It is just the stuff of one more dinner party conversation. It is skin deep. Anyone can talk about the importance of focusing on the things that matter most, and many people do, but to see people who dare to live it is rare. I say this without judgment. We have good reasons to fear saying no. We worry we'll miss out on a great opportunity. We're scared of rocking the boat, stirring things up, burning bridges. We can't bear the thought of disappointing someone we respect and like. None of this makes us a bad person. It's a natural part of being human. Yet as hard as it can be to say no to someone, failing to do so can cause us to miss out on something far more important. A woman named Cynthia once told me a story about the time her father had made plans to take her on a night out in San Francisco. Twelve year old Cynthia and her father had been planning the date for months. They had a whole itinerary planned down to the minute. She would attend the last hour of his presentation and then meet him at the back of the room at about four thirty and leave quickly before everyone tried to talk to him. They would catch a trolley car to Chinatown, eat Chinese food, their favorite, shop for a souvenir, see the sights for a while and then catch a flick, as her dad liked to say. Then they would grab a taxi back to the hotel, jump in the pool for a quick swim. Her dad was famous for sneaking in when the pool was closed. Order a hot fudge sundae from room service and watch the late late show. They discussed the details over and over before they left. The anticipation was part of the whole experience. This was all going according to plan until, as her father was leaving the convention center, he ran into an old college friend and business associate. It had been years since they had seen each other and Cynthia watched as they embraced enthusiastically. His friend said in effect, "I am so glad you are doing some work with our company now. When Lois and I heard about it, we thought it would be perfect. We want to invite you and of course Cynthia to get a spectacular seafood dinner down at the wharf." Cynthia's father responded, "Bob, it's so great to see you. Dinner at the wharf sounds great." Cynthia was crestfallen. Her daydreams of trolley rides and ice cream sundaes evaporated in an instant. Plus, she hated seafood and she could just imagine how bored she would be listening to the adults talk all night. But then her father continued, "But not tonight. Cynthia and I have a special date planned, don't we?" He winked at Cynthia and grabbed her hand and they ran out of the door and continued with what was an unforgettable night in San Francisco. As it happens, Cynthia's father was the management thinker Stephen R. Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, who had passed away only weeks before Cynthia told me this story. So it was with deep emotion she recalled that evening in San Francisco, "His simple decision bonded him to me forever because I knew what mattered most to him was me," she said. Stephen R. Covey, one of the most respected and widely read business thinkers of his generation, was an essentialist. Not only did he routinely teach essentialist principles like, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," to important leaders and heads of state around the world, he lived them. And in this moment of living them with his daughter, he made a memory that literally outlasted his lifetime. Seeing with some perspective his decision seems obvious, but many in his shoes would have accepted the friend's invitation for fear of seeming rude or ungrateful, or passing up a rare opportunity to dine with an old friend. So why is it so hard in the moment to dare to choose what is essential over what is non-essential? One simple answer is we are unclear about what is essential. When this happens we become defenseless. On the other hand, when we have strong internal clarity, it is almost as if we have a force field, protecting us from the non-essentials coming at us from all directions. With Rosa, it was her deep moral clarity that gave her unusual courage of conviction. With Steven, it was the clarity of his vision for the evening with his loving daughter. In virtually every instance, clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the non-essentials. Essentially Awkward A second reason why it is hard to choose what is essential in the moment is as simple as an innate fear of social awkwardness. The fact is we as humans are wired to want to get along with others. After all, thousands of years ago when we all lived in tribes of hunter-gatherers, our survival depended on it.

Clarity of values equals courage (15:09)

And while conforming to what people in a group expect of us, what psychologists call normative conformity, is no longer a matter of life and death, the desire is still deeply ingrained in us. This is why, whether it's an old friend who invites you to dinner, or a boss who asks you to take on an important high-profile project, or a neighbor who begs you to help with the PTA bake sale, the very thought of saying no literally brings us physical discomfort. We feel guilty. We don't want to let someone down. We are worried about damaging the relationship. But these emotions muddle our clarity. They distract us from the reality of the fact that either we can say no and regret it for a few minutes, or we can say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or even years. The only way out of this trap is to learn to say no firmly, resolutely, and yet gracefully. Because once we do, we find not only that our fears of disappointing or angering others were exaggerated, but that people actually respect us more. Since becoming an essentialist, I have found it almost universally true that people respect and admire those with the courage of conviction to say no.

Non-essentialists automatically say yes (16:15)

Peter Drucker, in my view the father of modern management thinking, was also a master of the art of the graceful no. When Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Hungarian professor most well known for his work on flow, reached out to interview a series of creative individuals for a book he was writing on creativity, Drucker's response was interesting enough to Mihaly that he quoted it verbatim. "I am greatly honored and flattered by your kind letter of February 14th, for I have admired you and your work for many years, and I have learned much from it. But my dear professor Csikszentmihalyi, I am afraid I have to disappoint you. I could not possibly answer your questions. I am told I am creative. I don't know what that means. I just keep on plodding. I hope you will not think me presumptuous or rude if I say that one of the secrets of productivity, in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity, is to have a very big waste paper basket to take care of all invitations such as yours. Productivity in my experience consists of not doing anything that helps the work of other people, but to spend all one's time on the work the good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well."


A true essentialist, Peter Drucker, believed that "people are effective because they say no." Non-essentialists say yes because of feelings of social awkwardness and pressure. They say yes automatically, without thinking, often in pursuit of the rush one gets from having pleased someone. But essentialists know that after the rush comes the pang of regret. They know they will soon feel bullied and resentful, both at the other person and at themselves. Eventually they will wake up to the unpleasant reality that something more important must now be sacrificed to accommodate this new commitment. Of course the point is not to say no to all requests. The point is to say no to the non-essentials so we can say yes to the things that really matter.


It is to say no, frequently and gracefully, to everything but what is truly vital. A non-essentialist avoids saying no to avoid feeling social awkwardness and pressure. An essentialist dares to say no firmly, resolutely and gracefully. A non-essentialist says yes to everything. An essentialist says yes only to the things that really matter. So how do we learn to say no gracefully? Below are general guidelines followed by a number of specific scripts for delivering the graceful no. Separate the decision from the relationship. When people ask us to do something we can confuse the request with our relationship with them. Sometimes they seem so interconnected we forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once we separate the decision from the relationship can we make a clear decision and then separately find the courage and compassion to communicate it. Saying no gracefully doesn't have to mean using the word no. Essentialists choose no more often than they say no. There may be a time when the most graceful way to say no is to simply say a blunt no. But whether it's "I am flattered that you thought of me but I'm afraid I don't have the bandwidth" or "I would very much like to but I'm over committed" there are a variety of ways of refusing someone clearly and politely without actually using the word no. Later in the chapter you'll find more examples of ways to gracefully word your no. Focus on the trade-off. The more we think about what we are giving up when we say yes to someone, the easier it is to say no. If we have no clear sense of the opportunity cost, in other words the value of what we are giving up then it is especially easy to fall into the non-essential trap of telling ourselves we can get it all done. We can't. A graceful no grows out of a clear but unstated calculation of the trade-off. Remind yourself that everyone is selling something. This doesn't mean you have to be cynical about people. I don't mean to imply people shouldn't be trusted. I am simply saying everyone is selling something, an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows us to be more deliberate in deciding whether we want to buy it. Make your peace with the fact that saying no often requires trading popularity for respect. When you say no there is usually a short-term impact on the relationship. After all, when someone asks for something and doesn't get it his or her immediate reaction may be annoyance or disappointment or even anger. This downside is clear. The potential upside, however, is less obvious. When the initial annoyance or disappointment or anger wears off, the respect kicks in. When we push back effectively, it shows people that our time is highly valuable. It distinguishes the professional from the amateur. A case in point is the time that graphic designer Paul Rand had the guts to say no to Steve Jobs. When Jobs was looking for a logo for the company Next he asked Rand, whose work included the logos for IBM, UPS, Enron, Westinghouse and ABC to come up with a few options. But Rand didn't want to come up with a few options. He wanted to design just one option. So Rand said, "No. I will solve your problem for you. And you will pay me. And you don't have to use the solution. If you want options, go talk to other people. But I will solve the problem the best way I know how. And you use it or not, that's up to you." Not surprisingly, Rand solved the problem and created the jewel logo Jobs wanted. But the real lesson here is the effect Rand's pushback had on Jobs, who later said of Rand, "He is one of the most professional people I have ever worked with." In the sense that he had thought through all of the formal relationship between a client and a professional such as himself. Rand took a risk when he said no. He bet a short-term popularity loss for a long-term gain in respect. And it paid off. Essentialists accept they cannot be popular with everyone all of the time. Yes, saying no respectfully, reasonably and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost. But part of living the way of the essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run. Remember that a clear no can be more graceful than a vague or non-committal yes. As anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of this situation knows, a clear "I am going to pass on this" is far better than not getting back to someone or stringing them along with some non-committal answer like "I will try to make this work" or "I might be able to" when you know you can't.


Being vague is not the same as being graceful and delaying the eventual no will only make it that much harder and the recipient that much more resentful. The No Repertoire Remember, essentialists don't say no just occasionally. It is a part of their regular repertoire. To consistently say no with grace then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Following are eight responses you can put in your no repertoire.

The Awkward Pause (24:14)

1. The Awkward Pause Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or, if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.

The Soft No (24:39)

2. The Soft No or the No But I recently received an email inviting me to coffee. I replied "I am consumed with writing my book right now, but I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer." Email is also a good way to start practicing saying no but because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your no to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of email reduces the fear of awkwardness. 3. Let Me Check My Calendar and Get Back to You One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic non-essentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no. And as a result, she soon became a go-to person. People would run up to her and say "Could you help with X Project?" Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase. "Let me check my calendar and get back to you." It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a yes when she was asked.

Use Email Bouncebacks (26:05)

4. Use Email Bouncebacks It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable no there is. People aren't saying they don't want to reply to your email. They're just saying they can't get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book, I set an email bounceback with the subject line "In Monk Mode". The email said "Dear friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize. Greg." And guess what? People seem to adapt to my temporary absence and non-responsiveness just fine. 5. Say "Yes". What should I deprioritize? Saying "No" to a senior leader at work is almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying "Yes" is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case, it is not only reasonable to say "No", it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said "Yes" and force them to grapple with the trade-off. For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do "X", you can respond with "Yes, I am happy to make this the priority". Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project? Or simply say "I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments, I wouldn't be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on". I know a leader who received this response from a subordinate. There was no way he wanted to be responsible for disrupting this productive and organized employee. So he took the non-essential work project back and gave it to someone else who was less organized.

Say It with Humor (28:13)

6. Say it with humor I recently was asked by a friend to join him in training for a marathon. My response was simple, "Nope". He laughed a little and said "Ah, you practice what you preach. Just goes to show how useful it is to have a reputation as an essentialist".

Techniques For Uncommitting And Overcoming Fear

You Are Welcome to X (28:32)

7. Use the words "You are welcome to X, I am willing to Y". For example, "You are welcome to borrow my car, I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you". By this you are also saying "I won't be able to drive you". You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat, but cannot throw your full weight behind. I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person's ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have. 8. I can't do it, but X might be interested. It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don't really care if we are the ones who help them, as long as they get the help. Kay Krill, the CEO of Anne Inc. aka Anne Taylor and "loft" women's clothing retailers, used to have a terrible time saying no to social invitations. As a result, she would end up at networking events she had no interest in attending. She would find herself going to office parties and regretting it the moment she got there. Then one day one of her mentors came to her and told her that she had to learn to jettison the people and things of her life that just didn't matter, and that doing so would allow her to put 100% of her energy into the things that had meaning for her. That advice liberated her. Now she is able to pick and choose. With practice, politely declining an invitation has become easy for her. Kay explains, "I say no very easily because I know what is important to me. I only wish that I learned how to do that earlier in my life." Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience. We are novices at no. Then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We develop more skills. We keep practicing. After a while we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal, and in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We can handle almost any request from almost anybody with grace and dignity. Tom Friel, the former CEO of Hydric and Struggles, once said to me, "We need to learn the slow yes and the quick no." Chapter 12 Uncommit Win big by cutting your losses Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.

Chapter 12 Uncommit (31:13)

Josh Billings By any estimation, the Concorde jet was a striking achievement in aeronautical engineering. Aboard this passenger plane you could fly from London to New York in as little as 2 hours 52 minutes and 59 seconds. That's less than half the time of a traditional plane, making the Concorde the fastest passenger plane in the world. Unfortunately, it was also an extraordinary financial failure. Of course, many great ideas, innovations and products are, but what made this one different was that it consistently lost money for more than 4 decades. Yet each time it went over budget, the French and British governments poured more and more money in. They did this even knowing that the chance of recouping their continued investments, let alone the original expenditures, were miniscule. With the plane's limited seating, few orders coming in, and the high cost of production, it was clear that even with exaggerated estimates, the project would never be profitable. Indeed, when the British cabinet papers were released under the 30 year rule, they revealed that government ministers at the time knew the investment could not stand on normal economic grounds. Why would intelligent, capable British and French government officials continue to invest in what was clearly a losing proposition for so long? One reason is a very common psychological phenomenon called sunk cost bias. Sunk cost bias is the tendency to continue to invest time, money or energy into something we know is a losing proposition simply because we have already incurred, or sunk, a cost that cannot be recouped. But of course, this can easily become a vicious cycle. The more we invest, the more determined we become to see it through and see our investment pay off. The more we invest in something, the harder it is to let go. The sunk costs for developing and building the Concorde were around $1 billion. Yet the more money the British and French governments poured into it, the harder it was to walk away. Individuals are equally vulnerable to sunk cost bias. It explains why we'll continue to sit through a terrible movie because we've already paid the price of a ticket. It explains why we continue to pour money into a home renovation that never seems to near completion. It explains why we'll continue to wait for a bus or a subway train that never comes instead of hailing a cab. And it explains why we invest in toxic relationships even when our efforts only make things worse. Examples like this abound. Consider the somewhat bizarre story of a man named Henry Gribham who recently spent his entire life savings, $2,600 in total, at a carnival game trying to win an oversized banana. The more he spent, the more determined he became to win. Henry said, "You just get caught up in the whole 'I've got to win my money' back." But it didn't turn out that way. The more he invested in trying to win this utterly non-essential item, the harder it was for him to walk away. Have you ever continued to invest time or effort in a non-essential project instead of cutting your losses? Have you ever continued to pour money into an investment that wasn't panning out instead of walking away? Have you ever kept plodding down a dead end because you could not admit, "I shouldn't have pursued this direction in the first place"? Ever been stuck in a cycle of throwing good money after bad? A non-essentialist can't break free of traps like these. An essentialist has the courage and confidence to admit his or her mistakes and uncommit, no matter the sunk costs. A non-essentialist asks, "Why stop now when I've already invested so much in this project?" An essentialist asks, "If I weren't already invested in this project, how much would I invest in it now?" A non-essentialist thinks, "If I just keep trying, I can make this work." An essentialist thinks, "What else could I do with this time or money if I pulled the plug now?" A non-essentialist hates admitting to mistakes. An essentialist is comfortable with cutting losses. Sunk-cost bias, while all too common, isn't the only non-essentialist trap to watch out for. Below are several other common traps and tips for how to extricate yourself politely, gracefully, and with minimal cost. Avoiding commitment traps Beware of the endowment effect A sense of ownership is a powerful thing. As the saying goes, "Nobody in the history of the world has washed their rental car."

Pretend You Don't Own It Yet (36:32)

This is because of something called the endowment effect. Our tendency to undervalue things that aren't ours, and to overvalue things because we already own them. In one study demonstrating the power of the endowment effect, the Nobel Prize winning researcher Daniel Kahneman and colleagues randomly gave coffee mugs to only half the subjects in an experiment. The first group was asked how much they would be willing to sell their mug for, while the second group was asked what they would be willing to pay for it. It turned out that the students who owned the mugs refused to sell for less than $5.25, while those without the cups were willing to pay only $2.25 to $2.75. The mere fact of ownership, in other words, caused the mug owners to value the objects more highly, and made them less willing to part with them. In your own life, I'm sure you can think of items that seem to be more valuable the moment you think about giving them away. Think of a book on your shelf you haven't read in years, or a kitchen appliance still sitting in the box, or the sweater you got from Aunt Mildred, but never wore. Whether or not you get any use or enjoyment out of them, subconsciously, the very fact that they are yours makes you value them more highly than you would if they didn't belong to you. Unfortunately, we have this bias when it comes to non-essential activities as well as belongings.

Get over Fear of Waste (38:01)

The project that isn't getting anywhere at work seems that much more critical when we're the team leader on it. The commitment to volunteer at the local bake sale becomes harder to get out of when we're the one who put the fundraiser together. When we feel we own an activity, it becomes harder to uncommit. Nonetheless, here is a useful tip. Pretend you don't own it yet. Tom Stafford describes a simple antidote to the endowment effect. Instead of asking, "How much do I value this item?" we should ask, "If I did not own this item, how much would I pay to obtain it?" We can do the same for opportunities and commitment. Don't ask, "How will I feel if I miss out on this opportunity?" but rather, "If I did not have this opportunity, how much would I be willing to sacrifice in order to obtain it?" Similarly, we can ask, "If I wasn't already involved in this project, how hard would I work to get on it?" Get over the fear of waste. Hal Arkes, a professor of psychology at Ohio State University who studies judgment in decision-making, was puzzled by an enigma. Why are adults so much more vulnerable to the sunk-cost bias than young children? The answer, he believes, a lifetime to exposure to the "don't waste" rule so that by the time we are adults we are trained to avoid appearing wasteful, even to ourselves. Abandoning a project that you've invested a lot in feels like you've wasted everything and waste is something we're told to avoid, Arkes said. To illustrate this, he gave the following scenario to a group of participants. Assume that you have spent $100 on a ticket for a weekend ski trip to Michigan. Several weeks later you buy a $50 ticket for a weekend ski trip to Wisconsin. You think you will enjoy the Wisconsin ski trip more than the Michigan ski trip. As you are putting your newly purchased Wisconsin ticket in your wallet, you notice that the Michigan ski trip and the Wisconsin ski trip are for the same weekend. It's too late to sell or return either ticket. You must choose which to use. When asked which ski trip will you go on, more than half said they would opt for the more expensive trip, even though they would enjoy it less. Their faulty reasoning was that using the cheaper ticket would be wasting more money than using the expensive ticket. It's natural not to want to let go of what we wasted on a bad choice, but when we don't we doom ourselves to keep wasting even more. Instead admit failure to begin success.

Admit to your mistakes (40:57)

I remember a friend who would never stop to ask for directions because he could never admit he was lost. So we would waste time and energy driving around in circles getting nowhere, the epitome of a non-essential activity. Only when we admit we have made a mistake in committing to something can we make a mistake a part of our past. When we remain in denial on the other hand we continue to circle pointlessly. There should be no shame in admitting to a mistake, after all, we really are only admitting that we are now wiser than we once were. Stop trying to force a fit.

Stop trying to force a fit (41:32)

In the movie Tootsie, Dustin Hoffman plays a struggling actor who is trying to get work. The movie begins comically with a series of failed auditions. At one he is told, we need someone a little older. At the next he is told, we're looking for someone younger. Then at the next, you're the wrong height, to which he responds, I can be taller. The executive responds, no, we're looking for somebody shorter. Desperate to make it work, Hoffman's character explains, look, I don't have to be this tall, see, I'm wearing lifts, I can be shorter. But the executive also insists, I know, but we're looking for somebody different. Still persistent, the would-be actor pushes back again, I can be different. The point is that we often act like Dustin Hoffman's character by trying too hard to be something we're not. Whether in our personal or professional lives, it is all too tempting to force something that is simply a mismatch. The solution? Get a neutral second opinion. When we get so emotionally hung up on trying to force something that is not the right fit, we can often benefit from a sounding board. Someone who is not emotionally involved in the situation and unaffected by the choice we make can give us the permission to stop forcing something that is clearly not working out. I once wasted months of effort trying to force a project that just wasn't working out. Looking back, the more I put into it, the worse things became. But my irrational response was to invest still more. I thought, I can make this work. I did not want to accept I had been wasting my effort. I finally shared my frustration with a friend who had the advantage of being emotionally removed from the project. Someone who wasn't burdened with the sunk costs and could evaluate my decisions with some perspective. After listening to me, he said, "You're not married to this." And with those simple words, I was liberated to stop investing in a non-essential.

Ways To Overcome Bias And Fear Of Missing Out

Be aware of the status quo bias (43:42)

Be aware of the status quo bias. The tendency to continue doing something simply because we have always done it is sometimes called the status quo bias. I once worked at a company that used an employee evaluation system that seemed to me so woefully outdated that I became curious about how long it had been in place. As I searched for its creator in the company, I found that nobody, up to and including the long-standing head of HR, knew of its origin. More shocking still, in the 10 years she had been at the company, nobody had once questioned the system. It's all too easy to blindly accept and not bother to question commitments simply because they have already been established. One cure for the status quo bias is borrowed from the world of accounting. Apply zero-based budgeting. Typically, when accountants allocate a budget, they use last year's budget as the baseline for the next year's projection. But with zero-based budgeting, they use zero as the baseline. In other words, every item in the proposed budget must be justified from scratch. While this takes more effort, it has many advantages. It efficiently allocates resources on the basis of needs rather than history. It detects exaggerated budget requests. It draws attention to obsolete operations. And it encourages people to be clearer in their purpose and how their expenses align to that project. You can apply zero-based budgeting to your own endeavors. Instead of trying to budget your time on the basis of existing commitments, assume that all bets are off. All previous commitments are gone. Then begin from scratch, asking which you would add today. You can do this with everything from the financial obligations you have to projects you are committed to, even relationships you are in. Every use of time, energy, or resources has to justify itself anew. If it no longer fits, eliminate it altogether. Stop making casual commitments. Some people's days are full to the brim with soft commitments they have taken on unintentionally through an offhand comment or casual conversation they had somewhere with someone. You know the kind I mean. You're chatting with your neighbor about her work on the PTA, your colleague about a new initiative she is heading up, or your friend about a new restaurant he wants to try. And before you know it, boom. You're committed. From now on, pause before you speak. It might sound obvious, but pausing for just five seconds before offering your services can greatly reduce the possibility of making a commitment you'll regret. Before the words "That sounds great. I'd love to" fly out of your mouth, ask yourself "Is this essential?" If you've already made a casual commitment you're regretting, find a nice way to worm your way out.

Get over the fear of missing out (46:48)

Simply apologize and tell the person that when you made the commitment you didn't fully realize what it would entail. Get over the fear of missing out. We've seen ample evidence in this chapter suggesting that the majority of us are naturally very loss averse. As a result, one of the obstacles to uncommitting ourselves from a present course is the fear of missing out on something great.

Run a reverse pilot (47:14)

To fight this fear, run a reverse pilot. One of the ideas that has grown popular in business circles in recent years is prototyping. Building a prototype, or large scale model, allows companies to test run an idea or product without making a huge investment up front. Exactly the same idea can be used in reverse to eliminate non-essentials in a relatively low risk way by running what Daniel Shapiro, a director at LinkedIn, calls a reverse pilot. In a reverse pilot you test whether removing an initiative or activity will have any negative consequences. For example, when an executive I work with took on a new senior role in the company, he inherited a process his predecessor had gone to a huge effort to implement. A huge, highly visual report on a myriad of subjects produced for the other executives each week. It consumed enormous energy from his team and he hypothesized that it was not adding a great deal of value to the company. So to test his hypothesis, he ran a reverse pilot. He simply stopped publishing the report and waited to see what the response would be. What he found was that no one seemed to miss it. After several weeks nobody had even mentioned the report. As a result he concluded that the report was not essential to the business and could be eliminated. A similar reverse pilot can be carried out in our social lives. Are there commitments you routinely make to customers, colleagues, friends or even family members that you have always assumed made a big difference to them but that in fact they might barely notice? By quietly eliminating or at least scaling back an activity for a few days or weeks, you might be able to assess whether it is really making a difference or whether no one really cares. Even using these techniques, it's true that uncommitting can be harder than simply not committing in the first place. We feel guilty saying no to something or someone we have already committed to. And let's face it, no one likes going back on their word, yet learning how to do so in ways that will garner you respect for your courage, focus and discipline is crucial to becoming an essentialist. Hey guys this is Tim again, just a few more things before you take off. Number one, this is Five Bullet Friday. Do you want to get a short email from me? Would you enjoy getting a short email from me every Friday that provides a little morsel of fun before the weekend? And Five Bullet Friday is a very short email where I share the coolest things I've found or that I've been pondering over the week. That could include favorite new albums that I've discovered, it could include gizmos and gadgets and all sorts of weird shit that I've somehow dug up in the world of the esoteric as I do. It could include favorite articles that I've read and that I've shared with my close friends for instance.

Kevin's newsletter (50:16)

And it's very short, it's just a little tiny bite of goodness before you head off for the weekend. So if you want to receive that, check it out, just go to, that's all spelled out and just drop in your email and you will get the very next one. And if you sign up, I hope you enjoy it.

Four Sigmatic (50:35)

This episode is brought to you by Four Sigmatic, you might remember Four Sigmatic for their mushroom coffee which was created by those clever Finnish founders. And when I first mentioned that coffee on this podcast, the product sold out in less than a week. It lights you up like a Christmas tree which can be really useful. However, recently I've been testing the opposite side of the spectrum, a new product. And that is their Reishi mushroom elixir to help me end my day, to get to sleep. As you guys may know, long time listeners at least, I struggled with insomnia for decades. I've largely fixed that but still shutting off my monkey brain has never been easy, still isn't easy very often. And I've found Reishi which I've been fascinated by for a few years now has been very very effective and calming. Their old formula however, Four Sigmatic's old formula included stevia and I like to avoid sweeteners, all sweeteners for a host of reasons. And I then just pinged them and asked, "Hey guys, I would love to experiment with this and maybe actually suggest it but I'd like a version without sweeteners if you'd be open to it. If you have too much of a headache, don't worry." And they are always game for experimentation so they created a special custom version without the stevia, without sweeteners. Now it is part of my nightly routine. Their Reishi elixir comes in single serving packets which are perfect for travel. And in fact, I'm about to leave the country right now and I have a packet in front of me that's just going to sit in the end of my carry-on bag. You only need hot water and it mixes very very easily. Here's some recommended copy that they put in the read. So I'm going to read it and I'll give you my take. So I'm going to say no. You should suck it up and you should drink the tea because it's not that bitter and maybe you should take the advice of old Chinese people when they're criticizing youngins when they say "bunang shikuo" which means you're not able to eat bitterness.

Avoiding Sweeteners

No sweeteners! (52:28)

Bitter is in many cases an indication of things that help liver detoxification and so on. I'm not saying that's the case here but I've tested this Reishi elixir on family members, on friends, everybody has liked it. It's a little bit earthy, it's not that hard. So I would just say suck it up and no, don't put in honey or nut milk or any of that shit. Just drink the goddamn tea, it's delicious. I think. If you like Pu'erh, that kind of stuff, that type of tea, you're going to dig it. So just try it. Okay, back to then my read. If you'd like to naturally improve your sleep, both onset and quality, I think naturally, you might just enjoy this Reishi elixir without any sweeteners. It has organic Reishi extract, organic fueled mint extract, organic rose hips extract, organic tulsi extract. And that's it. No fancy stuff, no artificial, whatchamacallit, anything. So check it out. Go to and get 20% off this special batch. I don't know if they're going to be making much more of this since it was made specifically for you guys. So do me a favor and try it out so that they continue to be open to experimenting with me to create products for you guys specifically. Check it out. Get 20% off the special batch. And you must use the code "ferris" to receive your discount. So again, go to and then use code "ferris" for 20% off of this rare exclusive limited run of Reishi mushroom elixir for nighttime routines without any sweeteners. Enjoy. Services.

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