No Is a Complete Sentence
Raise your hand if you have more things to do than time to do them.
Keep your hand up if you are totally comfortable saying no when someone asks you to add something to your already overloaded plate.
In today’s “do more with less” world, we have somehow normalized overextending ourselves, exhausting ourselves, pushing ourselves by saying yes when we want to or even should say no. Even more oddly, many of us brag about how utterly overwhelmed, overworked, overcommitted and overstretched we are, as if it is a badge of honor!
Why do we give in to demands that we know we will resent later? Why do we feel guilty about saying no, only to find ourselves roped into someone else’s projects and commitments when we’d really rather be doing something else? I’m sure there are many psychological and sociological explanations (good and bad). But ultimately, saying yes to too many things is counterproductive.
To be our best and do our best, we need to learn to say no. But, adopting this change in behavior will be uncomfortable and is easier said than done. So, keeping that in mind, let me offer some thoughts on a change of perspective and some practical tips on how to start saying no.
Know What Matters to You
You can’t be all things to all people. Know your priorities. Know your goals. Know what needs to get done over the coming weeks, months, and years. More importantly, know what matters to you. Then say no to anything that doesn’t move you in that direction. The focus you get from knowing what is important to you allows you to set boundaries. If your boundaries aren’t strong, everything gets in. We have to build good boundaries and resolve to say yes only to things that we enjoy, that advance our careers, or that move us toward our goals.
This may feel a little selfish, but don’t think of it as narcissism or egocentrism. It is commendable to have compassion for another’s predicament, but that doesn’t mean you have to fix their problem. Not every drowning man is your responsibility to save. The issue here is focusing on your goals and setting boundaries: choosing them, declaring them, and then enforcing them. Learning to say no is a basic tool to get you where you want to be.
Know what is important to you, and acknowledge what is not. Sure, some people around you will not be happy. But would you rather live your life for the approval of others or aligned with your goals and your dreams? You get to choose and you reap the consequences.
“No” is a complete sentence. No need to beat around the bush or make excuses; you are not obligated to defend your no. Any attempt to justify your no only provides an opening for the other person to refute the validity of your no, which will only consider their goals, not yours. Any explanation keeps the discussion alive and the yes in play. Don’t give them an opening; say no and move on.
If you do feel compelled to offer some explanation (and I suggest you don’t), frame it around your yes, not their no. Restate your goals and what is on your already full plate that you are excited about doing because it moves you in the direction you want to go. Perhaps they will be able to explain how their request gets you more of what you want. If not, they should better understand your no.
The key is that you don’t have to justify your decision to anyone other than yourself, because you own the consequences of your decision. You own your yes or no.
Follow Your Yes
By saying yes to too many things we may be denying ourselves more important things. Saying no allows you the capacity to say yes to something else. Even more importantly, if our plate is always full, there’s no room to take on the unexpected opportunity. When your head is down in a pile of work, it is easy for a great opportunity to pass by unnoticed.
In general, I’m a possibilities guy. I see something and I want to try it out, make it better, or just discover the possibilities. So I struggle with saying no because often I really want to say yes. But there are two little constraints that get in the way: time and money. So I try to leave some capacity for serendipity. Some of my greatest joy has come when least unexpected.
FOMO: Fear of Missing Out
Some of us have a hard time saying no because we hate to miss out on an opportunity. But don’t think of it as a missed opportunity; it’s just a tradeoff. Remember, when you say no to the request, you are simultaneously saying yes to something you value more than that request. Both are opportunities, you are just choosing the one you want more.
We make choices every day. We weigh the pros and cons and then say no to one choice and yes to another. Mathematically, assuming only binary choices, we are missing out on only 50% of what could be, but we are experiencing 100% of what we choose to say yes to. Chew on that Yogi Berra-ism for a little bit.
Tips and Tricks to Help You Say No, So You Can Say Yes
I know it is not easy to say no, and even more difficult to say just no. These suggestions might help soothe the sting and build your discipline.
• Be assertive and respectful. You might say, “I appreciate you asking for my help but I’m stretched too thin right now to devote the time necessary to be of quality help to you.”
• Put the tradeoff back on the person asking. “I’m happy to do A and B, however I would need three weeks, rather than two, to do a good job. Which would you like me to delay?”
• Say no to the request, not the person. If you feel like you are letting someone down, remember, you’re not rejecting the person, just declining the opportunity. So make that clear.
• Create white space on your calendar. Block out time on your calendar and make it sacred or mark it Out of Office. Out of Office is so much more unmovable than just busy.
• Think about your reply before simply saying yes to meetings or events you don’t enjoy or need to be at. Minimally, reply “tentative” to meeting invites. Your calendar can be three deep for the same time period, but you have made no commitment to be at any particular meeting.
• Decline or tentatively accept meetings that do not specify a purpose in the invite. You don’t need a full agenda, but you do need to know why your attendance at the meeting will add value to you or the team/organization. Otherwise, how can you weigh your choices?
• Buy some time. If all else fails and you can’t say no, defer. Give yourself some time to think about your options and what you want to say yes to. Just say, “Let me think about that.”
• Then, after you have thought about it, rather than providing an excuse, defer indefinitely. Tell them to check back with you in the future when your schedule may be more open.
• Try a little “Yes, if…” Use this approach to find out how much your yes is worth to them by suggesting a trade: a yes from you for a yes from them. When people ask me to send them a copy of my presentation after I speak, I say “Yes, if you send me an email I’ll reply and attach the presentation.” I don’t always get the email from them and I saved myself some time.
Now it is your turn. Don’t be a canvict, “imprisoned by inability to say no.” (Lizzie Skunick, That Should Be a Word) If you have found clever and useful ways to say no, please share them below. We can all use a little help remembering that “No” is a complete sentence.