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

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Marli Meyer

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.’


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.


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.’


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.


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.

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