How to Say “No”: Start by Saying “Yes”

Do you have a hard time saying “no” to people and opportunities? Many of us slog through each day with the mud of too many commitments sucking us down. We know we are too busy. We don’t want to be so busy. But we just keep taking on more responsibilities. Why can’t we just say “no”?

too busy

The Problem with Never Saying “No”
I recently emerged from one of the busiest seasons of my entire year. An overcommitted several months culminated in a week of ridiculousness. I won’t go into all the details of that insane several days, but it included speaking in front of nearly 1,000 people, missing a flight, driving 7 1/2 hours instead, being a groomsman in a wedding, and preaching three times all within the span of three days. I crawled through that week by surviving on a combination of willpower and “5-hour energy” shots.

How did I get myself into this mess? I never said “no”. Any time a new possibility appeared, I just said “yes”. I knew I shouldn’t extend myself even further, but I just couldn’t stop myself. Then I finally discovered how to say “no” by saying “yes”.

Learning to Say “No”
I’ve only been at it a few weeks, but I’ve learned an important lesson. Saying “no” starts with saying “yes”. It may sound counterintuitive, but the first step to saying “no” to more responsibilities is by saying “yes” to other ones.

When I started making a shift to being less frenetic I had to start by identifying my goals and priorities. I sat down and I reflected, “I’m doing a lot. But what should I be doing?” I asked myself, “Are my activities moving me closer to my desired vision for the future?”

The reason we struggle to say “no” when new responsibilities arise is that we don’t have useful boundaries. We don’t know where to draw the line when it comes to how we spend our time, so we keep letting new obligations into our circle of concern. The problem is that, like a plate, our circle can become too full.

Defining our longer term priorities allows us to draw the appropriate boundaries around our time. You may want to pursue a graduate degree, a promotion, a certain level of health, a particular amount of time with family, or some other dream. The specific item doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know that you should prioritize the roles that move you closer to your goal.

A Reason to Say “No”
Now you have a reason to say “no”. When you have fixed your eyes on an inspiring vision, it becomes easier to pass over responsibilities that blur your focus.

The error most of us make in trying to say “no” is that we haven’t defined what is most important. When new opportunities arise we can’t distinguish between what would be nice to do and what we should do based on our aims. Instead we take on any and every responsibility until our mental, physical, or spiritual health suffers so much that it forces a change.

Start Saying “No” Today
Has the needle dipped below “E” on gas gauge on your energy tank? Do you find yourself constantly running but stuck in the same place? Then try this.

Get up early one morning or settle in later at night (because that’s likely the only time you’ll have since you’re still really busy) and write down 3-5 critical aspirations. Then spend a few moments backwards mapping some milestones that will get you there. You now have a short list of desires for the future and several steps you need to take along the way. You now have boundaries.

You will continually refine your ambitions and make course adjustments. But now you can look at a new opportunity and evaluate whether it is an advance toward or a retreat from your desired outcomes.

You have said “yes” to what is most crucial and now you can start saying “no” to what isn’t.

Leave a Comment: What tips do you have to help us say “no” and keep our lives at a more manageable and purposeful pace? 

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