Do you want to know the number one reason most people do not become successful?

Why it is that so many people talk about their dreams but so few actually reach them?

I’ll tell you — and I’ll tell you because this was the single most difficult lesson I had to learn as a 20-something with my own dream.

Most people do not know how to protect their time.

This starts the moment you decide you want to create something for yourself.

People will try to convince you that you shouldn’t do it — and you should do something else instead. You will say you want to create a short film, and the people around you will say, “You can do that later. Come hang out with us tonight instead.” You will say you want to write a book, and people will say, “You can write a book later in life. You should enjoy your time now!” You will say you want to go home and make moves toward launching your start-up idea, and people will say, “It’s Friday!”

It doesn’t come from a bad place. People just want other people to do what they want to do. They want friends to come and add to the situation. They want adventurers. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are many times when you should be an adventurer with your friends and enjoy the spontaneity of life.

However, the moment those decisions begin to live in conflict with what you deeply, truly want to do, you’ve made a mistake. Your time is no longer yours to spend, and it is being spent by others and what they want to do.

If you want to work on your film project, but you let people persuade you to go out to the bars instead, you have just lost control over your time.

If you want to make progress on that start-up you’re working on, and you let people persuade you to “do it later,” you’ve lost control over your time.

Protecting your time is a skill set. It takes practice. It is not easy to say no to things — especially fun things. It’s not easy to walk your own path and go your own way. And it’s certainly not easy to choose to work when everyone else you know has chosen to play.

But these are the decisions that build value in your life. All of these tiny moments, compounded over months and years, are what separate the people who say they want to become successful but never end up doing much of anything, and the people who end up living their dream every day.

Let me tell you a story:

When I was working on my first memoir, Confessions of a Teenage Gamer, I spent almost every weekend in my apartment, writing. When people would invite me out, nine times out of 10 I would say, “Maybe next time. I need to go home and work on my book.”

For five years, I did this. Although I did make decisions to go out here and there, and maintain some semblance of a social life, the vast majority of my time was spent investing in myself.

And for all five of those years, I was met with opposition. When I would decline people’s invitations, people would respond, “You need to relax more. You can work on your book later.” But I didn’t want to do it later. I wanted to do what I had to do now so that I could move on to the next thing later.

Here’s the irony:

After years and years of deliberately saying no to things that were distractions to me, and after publishing my first book, and after establishing myself as a writer online, many of those people came back around.

They said, “How can I do that? I have ideas. I have a project I’ve been working on that I can’t finish. How did you do it?”

I protected my time. Ferociously.

This is the single most important lesson any 20-something needs to learn.

Because if you think the distractions of life are going to make it any easier when you’re in your 30s or 40s or 50s, you’re wrong.

If you can’t protect your time for the things you truly want to do while you’re in your 20s, you will never be able to do so when you’re older with even more responsibilities and time commitments.

For no other reason, it’s about building the habit when you’re young. It’s about knowing the value of your time, and choosing to spend it how you want to spend it — whatever that means to you.

This article originally appeared in Inc. Magazine.

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