to be better at it Six ways
We’ve been saying ‘yes’ for so long that we don’t know how to say ‘no’ anymore. And when we do, we feel the need to explain ourselves. Over-committing is making us flaky and guiltridden – or resentful because it stops us from saying ‘yes’ to the right stu
There are many explanations as to why it’s difficult to say ‘no’. Our instrinsic need to be liked, to please people, to avoid disappointing them and to fit into our communities, for example. Personally, being an unrealistic optimist is my biggest reason – I truly believe it’s somehow possible to seamlessly fit everything in, right up to the very last moment, when I realise it’s not. Workwise, we want to impress our bosses, which means attending every meeting so we’re seen to be proactive and on top of everything. And of course there’s the famously contagious FOMO that rules our social psyches.
I realised I was struggling with all of the above when I was venting to my sister at lunch one day about how chaotic my life felt. She stopped me midway: ‘It’s because you never
have time to just chill and do nothing. You don’t need to do everything all the time,’ she said.
‘Yes, but I can’t miss certain things!’
‘But you’re not missing anything at the moment. You’re saying ‘yes’ to everything – on a personal and a professional level.’
It’s hard to go from putting your hand up for everything one day to assertively turning things down without excuses the next, but clearly something needed to shift. This was what I realised:
1. Saying ‘yes’ to everything means you’re short on time for important things
In the same way that multitasking makes us less effective at everything we’re attempting to do, constantly saying ‘yes’ decreases our ability to add real value. Craig Cincotta, a director of communications at Microsoft, refers to this as creating ripples of productivity when you should be making waves: ‘What really needs to happen versus what you want to have happen – often needs and wants are in conflict. Your time is valuable and the business is counting on you to make good decisions. If you just say “yes” to every potential need or request that comes your way, you’re limiting your ability to focus.’ Ergo, ripples, not waves.’
On a personal level, if you’re trying to get to every social opportunity, you may not be prioritising the relationships you should by giving them enough focus and proper quality time. Your family or partner could be left feeling that they aren’t enough of a priority.
2. There’s a reason most successful people often say ‘no’
By selectively and consciously deciding how your time will be spent, and committing only to certain things, you’re acknowledging that those things are highly valuable. Warren Buffett famously said: ‘The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.’
If you’re spending your time and energy only on the most essential and promising opportunities, you’ll be more productive, your personal life will flourish and you’ll feel empowered by the direction you’re taking.
Greg McKeown, New York Times bestselling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less explains that this requires ‘not just haphazardly saying “no”, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just once a year as part of a planning meeting, but constantly reducing, focusing and simplifying. Not just getting rid of the obvious time-wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well’. It’s minimalism applied to more than just décor!
The other upside of trading our yes-culture for a more considered one, argues Lucy Kellaway of the
Financial Times, is this: ‘If enough people were to say “no” to pointless things often enough it would lead to a more efficient allocation of resources. If we all refused boring meetings and events, eventually the penny would drop and people would stop arranging them.’
3. Saying ‘no’ more often will stop us from saying ‘yes’ and not actually meaning it
An unfortunate result of our yes-binge is that we’ve become flaky. We haven’t set clear boundaries that allow us to easily say ‘no’ when we want to – so we often end up saying ‘yes’ and not meaning it. When push comes to shove, we cancel at the last minute… easy to do, because we’ve all become used to it as a way of operating. We don’t want to disappoint someone, which is why we don’t turn them down in the beginning – but in the end it results in even greater disappointment because we come up with an excuse when it’s too late for them to make alternative arrangements.
‘The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say “no” to almost everything.’
4. Turning down some opportunities gives others the chance to step up
It’s a bit like delegation without having to outsource execution. Cincotta argues: ‘Truly great managers and leaders know the importance of helping their employees grow. If you’re really good at what you do, you owe it to yourself and the business to help others reach their potential.’
USE ‘DON’T’ INSTEAD OF ‘CAN’T’
An article in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when participants used the refusal strategy ‘I don’t’ instead of ‘I can’t’, it made it easier for them to say ‘no’. ‘I can’t’ implies weakness or an excuse that is up for debate, while ‘I don’t’ implies an empowered decision based on clear boundaries you have set for yourself. Examples are: ‘I don’t drink during the week’; ‘I don’t work past five’; or ‘I don’t use store loyalty cards’. But this wording isn’t appropriate to every situation: ‘I don’t eat out on Saturdays’ might not always be true. For that, this next pointer is almost always helpful.
ASK FOR TIME TO THINK ABOUT IT
Your immediate response might be an effort to avoid disappointing someone. Responding with ‘let me think about it and get back to you’, gives you the chance to review your schedule and consider whether it’s something you really want to spend your time on, rather than something you feel obliged to take part in.
ISAYING In professional settings, credit is usually given for putting up your hand to get involved, and little is given for turning down opportunities. It’s difficult to say ‘no’ to additional projects on your plate because you don’t want to seem reluctant. But that’s why people in your team who turn down opportunities to focus on the ones they’re busy with are to be admired.
Steve Jobs is a good example of someone who operated this way. At the Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference in 1997 he said: ‘People think focus means saying “yes” to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying “no” to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1000 things.’
BUILD TIME INTO YOUR CALENDAR TO TO DO NOTHING
Write it down in your schedule and aim for a certain time each week. Treat it like an important event/meeting/party, so that when something comes up, you already have the time blocked out – and your instinctive response will be that you’re already tied up.
SUGGEST SOMETHING ELSE
It’s much easier to turn down a social invitation when you propose a different time or activity: ‘This week I already have quite a few things planned, so let’s do a beach day next week?’ Similarly, make suggestions for different solutions at work: ‘I don’t feel I’ll be able to add enough value to this project but I know Lisa is great with video editing – I’ve looped her into this email thread.’
You need to accept that you aren’t responsible for everyone’s feelings – and reactions. It’s difficult, but you can’t keep everyone happy all the time, and you can’t predict or take responsibility for their reactions.
You’ll also be surprised at how often people aren’t disappointed if you’re just honest. I would understand if someone dropped me at the last minute with something like: ‘Listen, I’m feeling really stressed and overloaded and I just need a night in – can I take a rain check till this weekend?’ When you make up excuses, people can usually see through them and it’s more disappointing to be told white lies than to be asked to reschedule.