Telling stories

The Positive Art of Saying No

Posted by southwrite on August 25, 2014

Engine start stopWe all really like to say yes. When someone asks you to do something – take on another job or head up another committee – more often than not we’re inclined to say yes. We’re flattered that people think of us – especially those who want to pay us for our yes – and we we believe that “the ask” is itself an indication that we can and should do it.

Far too often we’re wrong. We say yes to requests when we should be saying no. Saying yes becomes an addiction that gives us a short and temporary high that’s often replaced by guilt, stress and sometimes leads to failure.

Many of us have a hard time saying no – especially to people we consider friends or colleagues. I know I do.

There was a time not so long ago when I was feeling overwhelmed. I had a heavy work load of freelance assignments, but I had also taken on volunteer work for a non-profit. As I accepted more and more tasks to further a good cause, I was spending more hours every week on what became a non-paying job. As the commitment grew larger, it became hard to finish the work I was being paid to do.

I looked at the need and didn’t want to let people down. I thought “if I don’t do it, who will?” I saw others putting in hours and began to critically say “you’re not managing your time. You can fit it all in. You don’t want to let them down”

Guilt plays a big role in our desire to say yes. Take the ALS ice water challenge that has been sweeping America. Facebook and YouTube are filled with videos of the famous and the not so famous dumping water on their heads. While it’s certainly a good cause, a big reason for its success is the (small amount of) guilt that comes with being called out in front of all your social media friends.

It’s one thing to have ice water dumped on your head if you want to support a good cause. It’s another to give in even when you know you don’t want to do it and shouldn’t be doing it and it won’t benefit you in any way.

Most of us would be better off if we said no more often, but in a conscious and thoughtful way.

We have to start with the realization that saying no can be the best kind of yes. Blogger Courtney E. Martin in The Spiritual Art of Saying No describes a conversation she had with a wise taxi driver on why you should say no more often. “You got to, girl. If you don’t learn to say no, you’ll either be miserable or die. One or the other.”

Saying yes to too many of the wrong things can lead to early death – even while you’re still living. We all bring to the table a certain number of skills and assets. These vary over time – particularly as we work to make ourselves better. At any one time we have a finite bank of working hours, energy and other resources.

As we show up in the world doing good things – more work, more assignments, more volunteer activities – we spend those reserves. At some point we reach the end of our bank account. Just as you can empty out your checking with donations to one or another good cause, we do the same thing with ourselves.

It’s easy to reach a point at which we’re drowning in new assignments. As we work frantically to make one deadline after another, things being to slip. We stop putting in the extra effort to polish a sentence or we decide not to call that next source – isn’t three or four enough? We run out hours in the day along with the ability to manage our time and work more efficiently. We start saying no to things that we should be doing – like reading, exercising, and just resting – in order to do one more thing and please one more person.

Here’s a strategy to use when people ask you to take on some task that you’re not really sure about – particularly if it’s a nonpaying volunteer activity.

Follow the Chinese proverb: “When in doubt do nowt.” If you’re not sure, do nothing (nowt). Say something like: “That sounds like a great thing to do, but I need to consider it and look at my schedule and other activities. I’ll get back to you in a few days.” Then you can make your decision deliberately – away from peer pressure. There’s a reason why fund raisers take along a friend or colleague of the potential donor they’re soliciting. It’s hard to say no to someone face-to-face.

Plan how you’re going to spend your time and energy. Just as we know we should budget our money to meet our goals, creating a budget for your time is also essential. You decide what means the most to you. Do you want to support your local church or non-profit? By crafting a plan, you avoid the risk of becoming scattered. Investing your time in one or two organizations can make a much greater difference for them than squandering it with a half dozen groups that you have only a marginal acquaintance with.

When you have your budget set, then it becomes easier to say no to things that will only distract from your goals. “You have a great organization, but I’m already spending all my volunteer time with these groups.”

Some people have no problem saying no. They’re confident and aware of their own integrity. They’re already spending their psychic and physical energies wisely and putting them into the things that mean the most to them.

We can join their ranks.


2 Responses to “The Positive Art of Saying No”

  1. This came at a great time for me. I’ve been debating taking on a large assignment when I’m already swamped. I’m giving it one more day to firm up my decision, but think I’ll take your advice and “nowt.”

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