Lately, one of my favorite Stephen Covey quotes has been on my mind. In his terrific book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
The concept of a bigger yes translates for me to freedom earned through introspection to discover what really matters, awareness to recognize when something may jeopardize our priorities, focus to keep our yes in the front of our minds and self-discipline to say “no” to things that threaten what matters most.
I am at my most empowered when I honor my bigger yes.
Recently, the arena where a bigger yes has been most prominent is nutrition. For most of my life, I have lived a bigger yes when it comes to food. Because of my desire to live compassionately and my commitment to justice for all living beings, I have been vegetarian since 1982 and vegan since 2008. This was easy for me. The bigger yes was compassion. Ceasing my consumption of meat as a 12 year old required some creative maneuvering within my family, but it did not require willpower or sacrifice. I was clear that I cared more for animals than I did for eating their flesh.
For so many years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough to satisfy my ethics. I allowed myself to linger in blissful ignorance for too long after better information was readily available. It was easier not to know. Until it wasn’t. For a long time, I had told myself that chickens didn’t suffer for us to eat eggs and that milking relieved the cows of their burdens. Deep down, I feared that I was lying to myself in my ignorance. Finally, compassion and commitment to my ethics became a bigger yes than convenience. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. Sure, it requires asking more questions and being a bit more resourceful, but the inner peace of prioritizing my bigger yes makes any inconvenience well worth it.
More recently, the nutritional bigger yes (coupled with my commitment to my ethics) is my long-term health. Toward that end, I have incorporated Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen app (See this post.) into my everyday life. That part was easy. It just meant some small modifications to my daily habits—adding beans to my morning smoothie to get a head start on my three servings; ensuring that I eat at least two servings of greens, plus a serving of cruciferous vegetables and including an eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric into my smoothies. These changes just meant eating even more of nature’s goodness. They weren’t difficult.
More challenging was recognizing that I needed to give up some of my (healthful!) extras in order truly to optimize my health and fitness and avoid gaining weight. After reading How Not to Die, by Dr. Greger, I became serious about making my long-term health and well-being my bigger yes, even more clearly and more boldly than it previously had been.
I have recognized in the past that I have had an addiction of sorts to dark chocolate and energy bars. During times of stress and anxiety, I have used these and other foods for comfort or security. Reading and internalizing Dr. Greger’s evidence-based, whole-food message, I recognized that my relationship to my comfort foods didn’t fit all that well with my nutritional objectives because of the added sugar and the processed nature of those products. Although the energy bars I ate were vegan and relatively healthful, my bigger yes is to maximize whole foods in my diet. So, I stopped a nearly daily habit of both the bars and the chocolate on January 1, when I started using the Daily Dozen app. (The date was coincidental—the day I learned about it—not by design.) In addition to added oil, which I had already largely eliminated, I also decided to avoid added sugar, even agave nectar and maple syrup, and to pay closer attention to the amount of sodium I consumed. Then, I increased my intake of some of the most healthful foods on the planet—dark, leafy greens; flax; beans and whole grains—but I kept a lot of my other little comforts.
They were nutritious additions—bonus foods—to the Daily Dozen. My son had broken our scale, so I focused on how great I felt and enjoyed the knowledge that I was putting good food into by body, without worrying about my weight. Several weeks into this cycle, I went to the doctor for an annual check-up. Stepping on the scale, I realized that even this good stuff was causing me to gain weight that would not maximize my cycling performance or optimize my long-term health.
Once again, it was time to acknowledge and honor a bigger yes. I decided to treat the Daily Dozen goals not as minimums, but as loose limits. By and large, I am consuming only the Daily Dozen now. This is not restrictive! There are so many wonderful, nourishing whole-food options. I am not automatically putting cacao nibs in with my nuts, eating nuts or nut butter several times a day or mixing vegan yogurt into my berries every single day. I still eat these things—nuts are part of the Daily Dozen—but I am eating just enough servings to meet the Daily Dozen goals, and cacao and vegan yogurt (one of the only processed foods in which I sometimes indulge) are truly occasional now. This allows me to honor my bigger yes.
I don’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I feel satisfied and peaceful because I am clear about what my priorities are, and I am living them. These are my comforts now.
Cycling is a bigger yes for me, too. It would be so easy to sleep in on a summer Saturday morning, but if I did, I might not get my long ride. The ride is a bigger yes than the leisurely start to the day. I know that I will feel better and happier with myself if I get up early to ride than if I don’t. Last Friday, I got up at 3 a.m. to take my mom for a medical procedure. Happily, it went well, and I was able to get her home by 1 p.m., avoiding the overnight hospital stay we had expected. When I got her settled at home, she suggested that I take a nap and then go for a bike ride (beautiful day in February!) before my son got out of school. I said, “I am going to go for a bike ride and then maybe take a nap because cycling is a higher priority.” It is not that sleep is not important; it just means that I had to make a choice, and that choice was to honor my bigger yes.
The bottom line is that there is only so much that fits into any one life. We have to make choices. When we say “yes” to one choice, it means that we are saying “no” to another. Conversely, saying “no” makes room for a “yes.” The key is being devoted to a bigger yes, so that the noisy distractions can’t overshadow it. I view this as freedom.
My biggest tormentors are my own feelings—anxiety, stress, disappointment, shame, disgust and guilt. I have found that one way of reducing the power these tormentors have over me is to honor my bigger yes in every situation. When I do that, I am free from disappointment in myself, as well as its previously mentioned conspirators. The key is to be self-aware enough to recognize the bigger yes. These questions may help us discover and honor our priorities:
- What matters most to me in life?
- What are my core, defining values for which I want to be known?
- What do I most want in this situation?
- What actions will help me to achieve my most important goals?
- Which choice will bring me the most peace?
- Where do I need to say “no” in order to make room for my bigger yes?
Reflection and journaling can assist in clarifying the answers to these questions. Then we must commit to the bigger yes. We must decide that we are worth the courage, effort, sacrifice or social backlash that may come with the actions necessary to honor our bigger yes.
As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” The bigger yes helps us hold on to what is most important and to resist the pull of distractions. I have often said that discipline is the reward for making a tougher choice, one that honors a bigger yes. With discipline comes freedom, which brings us closer to inner peace. The more I nurture my bigger yes, the freer and more peaceful I feel inside. That freedom is worth more to me than any taste, convenience, nap or social approval ever could be. The bigger yes often requires making the unconventional choice. That is okay. I choose integrity over convention any day. People don’t always understand or appreciate the choices we make to honor our bigger yes, but I have to live with myself one hundred percent of the time, so I choose to direct my behavior internally. As Covey said, it takes courage to do that, but the rewards are great.