How Setting Boundaries Sets You Free

Steve Jobs was well known for his decisiveness.  When he got his second shot at running Apple, he was adamant about the company maintaining its focus and designing products that would be best-in-class. His head designer, Jonathan Ive, recounts how Jobs would often stop him in the corridors of the Apple Headquarters, and ask him how many requests he had said “No” to on that particular day.

Jobs also became famous for his “Not Doing List.” This idea – the Not Doing List – has subsequently become one of the mainstays of productivity gurus. It’s been around for a very long time, and you most likely have one. However, you may not be fully aware of it because you employ it only on a short term basis and in case of emergencies or high pressure situations. Such a situation is when you have a massive deadline looming at work. Or an academic paper to deliver by Monday, if you’re a student. Or a house that needs a clean before the in-laws drop in for a weekend visit. On such occasions, you are most probably going to come up with a temporary “Not Doing List”: 1. I am not going out this weekend. 2. I am not watching TV today; and even, harmful though it may be sometimes, 3. I am not sleeping tonight.

Counterintuitive though it may be, the ‘Not Doing List’ is in many ways what enables us to do what we want to do. This, incidentally, is one the oldest definitions of the idea of freedom. Aristotle for example, took pains to differentiate between doing what we want to do and doing what we feel like doing. This is because, often times, what we feel like doing and what we want to do are completely at odds. Take for example having to clean out the garage. We want to clean out the garage. We want to get rid of that mess that points an accusing finger at us every time we walk past it. We want to not have our significant other ask us to clean it out for umpteenth time. These are all things that we want. But do we feel like doing them? Of course not. Not until it’s crunch time. Not until some external force compels us to stop doing what we feel like doing and start doing what we want to do. Said force is often times a deadline – a limit beyond which there will be irreversible consequences, a situation that’s grimly likened to death (dead-line). Hence the saying “if it wasn’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”

The ‘Not Doing List’ is a kind of proactive replacement for the Last Minute. One could say it’s the price we pay for our freedom. It’s what we give up so we can do what we want to do. And what we give up often times has to do with our emotions, what we “feel like” doing at a particular time. It’s interesting to note that Aristotle identified the emotion of fear as one of the most enslaving emotions a human being could experience. All the emotions, left unchecked, can have this debilitating effect of pulling us away from what we want. This is not to say that emotions are bad. In and of themselves, they are  neither good nor bad. They are simply reactions that need to be managed. And often times, the first step that’s needed in managing the typical “problematic” emotions such as fear, discouragement and despair – the usual suspects standing in the way of what we want, is to simply recognise that we are in their hold at a particular moment. Being able to identify an emotion and say “No” to it, can often times speed us along towards what we want.

The idea that freedom, or doing what we want to do, has an element of saying No to our feelings, is something that is quite present in our lives. We seldom pay attention to it, though. Take marriage, for example. Being married means that one has said “No” to approximately 3,5 billion women, in order to say “Yes” to only one. All of those 3 and half billion “Nos’ buy a man the freedom to do what he wants, to say ‘Yes’, to the one woman of his life. This “saying No” is one of the pillars of a free society. Whether that society be a family, a state or a religion, each often has rules and regulations that are stated as a Not Doing list. Think of the Ten Commandments, common to both Jews and Christians. 8 of the 10 contain clear instructions about what Not To Do. Taken from the Steve Jobs perspective of the Not Doing List, these apparent limitations on our freedom, start to appear as quite the opposite. They are exactly what we need in order to do what we want to do. It is quite refreshing to think that, in order to do what we want to do, we only need to say No to relatively few people (mainly ourselves) or things or situations.

Except of course, in the case of marriage, where we say no 3 and a half billion times in order to say one Yes.

What do you want to achieve? What do you envision will stop you from achieving it?