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CNN’s Poppy Harlow: Finding happiness in ‘No’

Poppy Harlow

Warren Buffett says a lot of smart things.  But one sentence he uttered recently really struck me.

“There are two things money can’t buy — love and time,” the billionaire investor (aka the Oracle of Omaha) told me. “You can buy a lot of things with money but love and time are so important, and they become more precious as life goes along.”

Time. As the mother of a one-year-old daughter, you might as well wrap “time” up in a box and give it to me for Christmas. (If only that were possible!)

Not only is Buffett right, but he points out what I have been missing the mark on for a while. I’ve been equating being busy with being productive and happy.

My first few months back at work last year after maternity leave were rough.  At first I couldn’t figure out why.  I was healthy, we were fortunate to have a happy and thriving child, and I have a pretty incredible husband who equally shares the heavy lift of parenthood.  But I had continued to fill every free moment of my day with a quick meeting here and another one there. Did I have an open hour on my Outlook calendar at 1 p.m.? Yup, sure, I can meet then!

For years, I’ve been delegating my so-called “free” and “personal” time to the whims of others. I thought having a jam-packed calendar would fulfill me. It did the opposite.

Far too often my answer to that “Can we grab coffee so that I can pick your brain for 10 minutes?” email has been, “Sure, when works for you?” Even as I typed my reply, I was fully aware that scheduling yet another thing on my calendar would inevitably mean less time at home with our 18-month-old daughter Sienna, and less time to myself (which I’m increasingly learning is really important to have).

Because I’ve been the fortunate recipient of so many helpful career advice conversations and meetings I want to pay it forward. But if this first year of motherhood and the ensuing work-life juggling act has taught me anything it’s that something has to give.

Each day, I’d find myself furiously racing home to squeeze in some quality time with Sienna, that was, inevitably, far too rushed. I was missing too many of those spontaneous moments when I actually see – and appreciate – the little things that make Sienna smile and laugh. (Her latest trick – spinning in circles until she gets dizzy and plops on the ground.)

Those are the best moments – and I was racing through them. All that rushing left me feeling empty and like I was failing on all fronts.

This was a problem of my own making and only I could fix it. I had to say no to more.

I recently heard Ursula Burns, the former CEO of Xerox and a woman highly respected and admired around the globe, say she’s still trying to learn to say “no” more often.

“One of the things I do poorly … is to say no to things. It’s really, really hard,” Burns said in a recent New York Times interview. Burns noted she’s trying to find more time to “relax a little” and “go deeper in things.” We could all likely benefit from prioritizing more and going deeper in to those things that are important to us. That’s her point.

By no means, however, is it just CEOs who struggle with “no.”

Reclaiming your time goes beyond managing your work/career time. It extends to your personal time, too. My friend Verena von Pfetten, a digital consultant and entrepreneur, is the master at this.

I told her about my over-scheduled calendar when we were walking through her neighborhood of Red Hook, Brooklyn, last summer.

“As a rule, I try to make no more than two outside-of-work plans a week, whether with friends or for professional reasons,” she told me. “Really?”, I exclaimed, feeling instantly envious as I visualized my over-scheduled calendar. Later, over email, I asked her to explain further. “It forces me to actually think about what I want to do and whether it’s important or valuable for me to do it,” she told me. Amen.

So I took on the von Pfetten challenge, if you will, starting about six months ago. It was harder than I thought. In fact, I had intended to publish this column months ago. But each time I read through it I realized I was still not living what I was preaching. I wasn’t saying “no” enough. I was making progress – but I was still cramming too many meetings I could have declined into a single day.

I was still stretched too thin.Here’s what has helped me – and I hope can help others. Rather than defaulting to “yes,” I’ve been saying “Can we talk over the phone?” Then, before we chat, I ask the person to email me a bit about him or herself and career – and to be specific about how I can be most helpful to them. That shows me very quickly who I can really help.

It is important for all of us to help those coming up in their respective fields. Mentoring youth at Madison Square Boys & Girls Club, as well as aspiring journalists, has fulfilled me in so many ways.  The least I can do is pay it forward.  Even if they are a friend of a friend’s niece’s friend (you know you get those request, too) I make sure to say yes to helping those who reach out but try to do it when it doesn’t come at the cost of family time (i.e. when my daughter is napping or while I am commuting to and from work).

This summer has been a process of getting better at saying no, focusing on the things most important to me and my family, and finding more happiness as a result. Yes, I’ve said no to things that could have helped me professionally – like networking dinners and an invitation to speak at a conference overseas.

But here’s what I’ve learned: I’m actually saying “yes” to what matters most. Yes to more time with Sienna and our family. Yes to more sleep (I’ve been needing that). Yes to thinking purposefully about what I want to achieve, personally and professionally, and having the time to do so.

Saying no can be uncomfortable and feel awkward, but trust me, it is liberating.

A few months into my experiment, I’ve taken back a good chunk of my time. I’ve become more honest about what I do and don’t want to do. Of course I still have the demands of my job – but I’ve prioritized what is most important and cut out the excess. Yes, I’ve had to be more selfish. But if you don’t make yourself a priority, who will?

At the end of the day, we never know how much time we will have with those we love most. My dad passed away at the age of 49, when I was 15 years old. He was the kind of parent I really hope to be. As a litigator he traveled often for work, but when he was home – he was home. His attention was 100% on our family with no distractions. It may have taken me 35 years but I got the memo, Dad. Thank you so much – from me, Sienna and our little boy on the way.

Poppy Harlow is the co-anchor of CNN Newsroom, Monday-Friday from 9-11 a.m. ET and the host of the CNN podcast “Boss Files with Poppy Harlow.” She lives in New York with her husband and their daughter Sienna.

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