The Power of “Not Now”: Leadership and Self-containment

Originally published for my column Inner Actions on

A couple I work with love to go out to dinner together, but rarely do they enjoy dinner as much they used to. This is because each has a habit of picking fights before special mealtimes. Only recently did they discover that this pattern was in part related to hunger and blood sugar issues, and that when they are hungry, their irritation feels more pronounced, causing a feeling of needing to express. But alas, expressing irritation while hungry rarely serves to discharge but rather to inflame the negative emotions. Countless, well-planned, well-intentioned date nights have been tainted as a result.

A female exec is making room in her busy schedule for Her. She signed up for a soul stirring, inspiring painting class that she loves, but every time she needs to get ready for it, her smartphone, as if on cue, notifies her of an “urgent” message. The beginning of each art class is marked by her late entry, accompanied by her remorse for having interrupted others and for betraying herself by missing out on some of her treasured and rare creative time.

A recent divorcee has fallen in love with an amazing man who has been twice divorced and who is just getting “back out there.” They are both excited by the power of their connection. When she brings up the issue of marriage two months into the relationship, that “lovin’ feeling” fizzles away and is drastically replaced with distance and silence.

Do any of these situations strike a chord with you? They all could have gone differently if the participants had learned to cultivate the Power of “Not Now.” The Power of “Not Now” is being able to hold a boundary that allows you to protect your values and honor your priorities by delaying impulses that are destructive and misleading. It is the understanding that your inner impulses and feelings are not always the best forces to follow in creating your life. You may feel a frenzied and immediate need to get something off your chest, or the urgent pull of an incoming e-mail, but if you are also in touch with your priorities, the other people around you, and what the next moment in life presents, the Power of “Not Now” can save you from a slew of unwanted consequences.

The Power of “Not Now” is the key to effective leadership in our daily and social interactions, a tool that can help us avoid unnecessary suffering. How do we practice self-containment and cultivate the Power of “Not Now” in a culture that is hyper-focused on “Right Now!”?

image of a stopwatch over white background
It all comes down to an alignment of values, priorities and choice. What do you, as a human being, value? Making money, building strong relationships, personal growth, being a good spouse and parent? Make a list. The next step, based on your values, is to establish your priorities in any given situation. In the case of the exec mentioned above, even though she valued having a healthy work/life balance, she was not able to prioritize herself over her work. She is also in conflict with her value of respecting others; otherwise, her late entrances would not cause her such guilt. She needs to get her priorities in line with her values and use the Power of “Not Now” when her phone tries to dissuade her from moving towards her playtime.

Once you get clear on your values and priorities, using the Power of “Not Now” becomes simple, even though at first it may feel quite difficult for you, and potentially, for the ones you love. I, for example, did not appreciate it when my partner used the Power of “Not Now” when I wanted to talk about some feelings after a night out with friends. He just wanted to get a good night’s sleep, and check in with me in the morning.

Initially, I was stumped. I felt shut down, shut out, stuck with negativity, and jealous of his ability to fall asleep. “Just like a guy,” I thought. While he drifted, I wrestled with my disappointment and anxiety, until suddenly I realized that he had, with his clear boundary, prevented me from picking a late night fight with him. When I awoke, he was smiling sweetly at me. My feelings had transformed. We laughed about how he had left me alone to face myself and how much I didn’t like it. I felt grateful that instead of recovering from a night of fighting, we enjoyed a lovely day.

Accessing the Power of “Not Now” can seem impossible when you are emotionally triggered. Our emotional reactions to people and places can be very alarming and insistent. They will try to convince us that they need to be expressed and dealt with ASAP if we want to be authentic. Despite our best intentions to be honest, a heightened, emotionally reactive communiqué is often fraught with hostility that punishes yourself or the other person and puts them on the defensive. What you truly need is to discharge emotion, that is, find a way to release it on your own, and communicate something more like facts. Discharging on your own or with someone with whom it is safe to do so is an invaluable practice. Sitting with a feeling and allowing the charge to dissipate, even as it convinces us we will die as we face it, can help you gather the information you need from the feelings in order to effectively lead.

This is where your tried and trusted tools come in, and what Stephen Covey referred to when he talked about “Sharpening the Saw.” Taking a walk, kick boxing, closing the door, meditation — whatever it is you do when you feel the surge will help you soften and slow down enough to know what it is you need to do or say. Letting people around you know you are triggered but are not ready to talk can be a great way to allow yourself to Be without withdrawing or feeling fake, and if you are in a public place, you can always excuse yourself, go to the restroom and breathe, and imagine the charge draining out of you into the ground. The discipline you use may not relieve you of the pressure immediately, but energy follows thought, and your efforts do make an impact.

Finally, when you want to act rashly but suspect you might need to use the Power of “Not Now”, ask these questions:

What are my priorities in this moment?
What is my intention for responding now or speaking up with emotional charge?
How might I hurt or inconvenience if I respond right now, and is it important to do so?
What is next? How do I want to feel, and how will I react in that event that more chaos ensues?

If you have spent a lifetime in avoidance of making waves and bottling up your truth, then you may need to disregard the information in this column for a little while, in favor of taking risks, speaking up and making some waves. It takes time, practice and many “mistakes” to truly learn the difference between a genuine call to immediate action and those calls that appear urgent or register as such on a feeling level but are the seeds of self-sabotage in disguise. Sometimes a good fight, or being late, or creating a mess, is exactly the right medicine . . . it just helps to feel a sense of choice in the matter, and to nip those sabotaging energies in the bud.

Authorize yourself to use the Power of “Not Now” to lead the life you envision, with lighter, smoother and more loving interactions!

8 responses to “The Power of “Not Now”: Leadership and Self-containment”

  1. Dan Forbes says:

    Blair, I love the power of “Not Now!” Which reminds me of the saying that every time we say Yes to one thing we are saying No to something else. It’s all about making better choices.

  2. Blair,
    Thank you for this. “Not Now”…I never thought of it that way. The examples you used (I like examples!)really struck a chord with me.

    Thank you too, for the questions to ask myself, to see if I am prioritizing well enough.

    ~ I have to think more on this, I believe it is one I am supposed to learn from.

  3. Terri Klass says:

    I really agree with your post Blair! We need to be honest with ourselves and allow ourselves to say “no” or make space. I do that when I need to process information before making a response. Take the time and don’t worry what others will think. Just terrific! Thanks!

  4. Alli Polin says:

    Blair – Terrific post! A few things made me talk out loud to myself as I read. I’m too emotionally explosive sometimes and the fight picker when I have some negative energy floating around me. Once I get it out, I do start to feel better but then find myself in the middle of hurt feelings and chaos around me. Learning not to bottle up those emotions but instead find a positive release valve is definitely the right choice that takes practice (at least for me!)

    Also appreciate your examples – especially your own. I’ve been there, hurt and ignored when I wanted to engage in conversation late at night and never thought about the gift from my husband’s boundary in that instance.

    Many thanks!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Alli, Thanks so much for your honesty. I know others can relate. Sometimes it’s hard when others use the Not Now in a way or at a time that is inconvenient or provocative. Thanks again.

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