Why musicians should say "no" to almost everythingWhen “yes” is the enemy

About six or seven years ago, I ran out of time.

I was fronting two different groups of my own, gigging pretty consistently in three other bands, doing the occasional one-off show or tribute night, taking session work, producing some albums for other artists here and there, recording and touring when I could, and playing as a hired-gun every Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning at a church — all while working full-time at CD Baby.

Oh, and did I mention family, friends, reading books, watching LOST (don’t laugh; it was 2008!), exercise, groceries, laundry? Individually, all of those things were working out OK, but as a whole, I couldn’t handle it. Something had to give.

“How did I get here,” I asked myself. “I’ve got a lot of good stuff going on, and most musicians would probably feel like that’s a great problem to have, but… I just don’t’ have enough TIME!”

And then I realized — I say YES to everything.

Well, not EVERYTHING. But lots of things. Too many things.

Fun and rewarding as they were in their own right, many of the musical projects I’d committed to were really a distraction from what I truly wanted (or wanted to do a lot more of): to write, record, and perform my own music.

So I had to “scale back.” I had to tell friends who I’d played with for years that I needed to be less involved in their bands (which for busy musicians often means less involved in their lives). I had to disappoint people. I had to accept the fact that, moving forward, this would mean disappointing more people, and that disappointment might even feel like rejection. How rude!

Hell, I even dissolved one of my own bands at the height of our buzz (modest as it was) so I could concentrate fully on one project — a decision I actually regret, but that’s a different blog post! At the time I thought of it more as a short hiatus, not a breakup, but anyway…

The point of all this is to say: you should be careful what you say YES to, or else you’ll find yourself doing a bunch of stuff that distracts you from your true creative purpose.

I read an article this morning on Business Insider called “The most successful creative people constantly say NO.” In part, it’s about a psychology professor who wrote to famous creative people asking if he could interview them for a book. Most of them said “no,” and the reasoning was simple — if I help you, I’m losing creative time.

The article by Kevin Ashton goes on to say:

Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating.

Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time.

No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know.


Now I’m not saying you should protect all your creative moments like some time-miser. Sharing, helping, and community are super important — and (to look at it like a utilitarian) can often have reciprocal effects: I scratch your back, you scratch mine.

So go ahead — help a buddy produce his record; play in someone’s band; collaborate; take the “money gig;” see some shows. All of those things enriched my life, helped me make some great friends, and expanded my musical “network.”

Just be careful! Don’t stretch yourself too thin. Make sure, before you say YES to anything, you’ve thought about how it will affect the rest of your goals and time expenditures.

Now, are you going to start saying “NO” more often?

(It’s OK to say “yes” just this once.)


Have you been in the habit of saying YES to too many things? How did you solve that problem? Let us know in the comments section below.

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[“No Thanks” image from Shutterstock.]