One of the easiest times in your life to say “no” is when you have young, growing children who are learning about boundaries. Phrases like, “No, don’t touch the oven, it’s hot!” become common when your children are little, and then as they get older they advance to, “No, you can’t go to that party this weekend,” or “No, you can’t hang out with friends until your homework is done,”.
And what is the power of saying “no” to your children in these situations? You’re teaching them to protect themselves from harm and to help them prioritise the most important things. Saying “no” to hanging out with friends in lieu of doing homework means saying “yes” to better grades and a brighter future down the road.
The reality is, saying “no” isn’t any different once you’re an adult. The only real difference? You don’t have a parent guiding you as to when and how you should set your own boundaries, leaving the “no’s” solely in your hands. And if you’re not paying attention, and you keep saying “yes” without considering the longer-term implications of saying “yes” to too many things, you may find yourself drowning in a sea of commitments you can’t seem to keep up with. So if you’re feeling overextended and overwhelmed, it may be time to take a step back and learn how to assert your “no’s.” In the long run, it can make you a better employee, a better business owner, and even a better person in relationships.
Saying “no” can protect you
Just as saying “no” can keep your child from touching a hot surface and burning themselves, saying “no” to some of the opportunities that come your way can keep you from harm, as well. Maybe the clear dangers to saying “yes” to too many things aren’t quite as obvious, but they’re significant, nonetheless.
When you fail to say “no” to the things that don’t align with your most important priorities, you’re bound to end up over-committed and stretched too thin, doing projects and tasks you don’t really want to be doing, and without the time available to do everything on your list.
And what happens when you’ve got too many balls in the air? You’re bound to drop one. Or all of them. You may let people down, or forget about a commitment. You may end up stressed out, filled with anxiety, and “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to try to keep ahead of every item on your list. Maybe you stop making time for sleep because you “need” those hours to complete the commitments you’ve made. Or maybe you have to skip date night or an important family event because your calendar is packed too full. And while maybe the “danger” of losing sleep or putting unimportant tasks ahead of family time isn’t obvious, they come at a cost. To your physical health, to your relationships, and to your own mental well-being.
Saying “no” to protect your family, friends, and health is incredibly important. And it’s an excellent reason to start learning to draw boundaries around your time.
Saying “no” is really about saying “yes” to your biggest priorities
You only have 24 hours in a day. If you’re wise, 8 of those hours should be dedicated to sleep. Another 8 or so (depending on your job) should be dedicated to work. That means that every day, you only have about 8 hours to dedicate to the people, tasks, and priorities that are most important to you. Some of that time will be spent taking care of physical or functional necessities, like bathing, eating, or driving to work. That leaves even less time to dedicate to family, friends, hobbies, or long-term goals. And if you’re not staunchly protecting the time you have for the biggest priorities in your life, it’s incredibly easy to make commitments to things that will eat away at that time, preventing you from keeping your time aligned with your priorities and goals.
For instance, maybe your child’s school approaches you to ask if you can be part of a planning committee that meets weekly for an hour. It’s an important role, and it benefits your children… but if every Wednesday night you have to drive to and from an hour-long meeting, and dedicate time to planning and engaging outside of the meeting hour, that might end up preventing you from doing a nightly bedtime routine with your child. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s not. That’s a decision that can only be left in your hands. But it’s important to remember that every time you say “yes” and commit yourself to something, you’re committing time and energy that could be invested elsewhere. And if you say “yes” to things that aren’t important to you, that means saying “no” to the things that are … and that’s a cost you shouldn’t be willing to pay long-term.
Saying “no” isn’t offensive
For some reason, many people see the word “no” as offensive. But “no” isn’t a bad word. “No” is simple, straightforward, and clear. And there’s nothing wrong about being clear about your priorities or intentions.
But people-pleasing is a real struggle for many individuals. Saying “no” can feel like you’re disappointing someone important to you, and can feel like confrontation, even if there’s not an argument at hand.
If you struggle to say the two-letter word when you’re faced with an opportunity you don’t really want to do, these tips can help. Be clear about your own time and priorities. If you haven’t already taken the time to write down the biggest priorities and goals you have in your life, now’s a good time to do so. Think about how much time you want to dedicate to family. Whether you need to carve space in your schedule for exercising. If there’s a new class you’ve been dying to take, or even if reading a book before bed every night is a gift you want to give yourself. Make a rough schedule of how you plan to commit time to your priorities. Of course things may change, but it’s a good place to start. Then, if you’re asked to work overtime, or if you’re asked to spend time outside work mentoring other colleagues, you can reasonably look at your schedule and decide whether you legitimately have time to dedicate to the task. Saying “no” is easier when you know you’re already committed to other things.
Keep your explanations short, clear, and sweet.
You may feel like you have to “justify” your reasons for saying no. But really, you don’t. A very simple, “I’m sorry, I already have a commitment at night on those days, I won’t be able to help.” is perfectly sufficient for explaining why you can’t do something.
Remember that everyone has to say no sometimes.
Every single person out there is constrained by the same 24-hour day as you are. And between work, school, family, friends, and hobbies, most people find themselves stretched too thin from time to time. And everyone has to say no. Do you think twice when a friend or family member kindly explains that they can’t make it to a party or they can’t help out with an event? Probably not. So it’s important to not hold yourself to a standard higher than you hold others to. Just be kind when you say no. Something as simple as, “I would love to attend your event, but my schedule won’t allow it this time around,” is all you need to say.
It can be tempting to hedge your answer when you’re presented with an opportunity you’re not sure you want to say yes to. For instance, if you’re asked to help plan a family member’s surprise party, you may be tempted to say, “Oh, that sounds like fun! Let me double-check my schedule before committing” to buy yourself some time to ease out of the situation. But failing to be clear about your “no” can make others think you’re interested in following through, which could end up putting them in a worse bind when you do say no. When you get an unexpected ask, and you feel put on the spot, just remember it’s better to say no than to say yes or maybe and drop the ball. Again, no isn’t a bad word. A clear, “Oh, that sounds like fun! Unfortunately I won’t be able to help out this time — but ask me next time!” is all you need to say.
Saying “no” can improve your productivity and performance. When you stop saying “yes” to distractions and items that don’t fall high on your priority list, you end up making more time for the things most important to you. You may sleep better, make time for exercise, enjoy a positive social life with your family, and commit to classes to further your career. At the end of the say, saying “no” to unimportant tasks means saying “yes” to the important ones — and that will only serve to fuel a more productive, positive life.