A monthly newsletter on mastery and creativity Subscribe


Saying No

“It’s the ability to choose which makes us human,” said the author Madeleine L’Engle.

Perhaps it has something to do with our social nature, our desire for connection and bonding, or maybe it’s just plain old FOMO, but I find it fascinating to see a tug-of-war between desire and rationale, and why it’s so easy to say yes to a request when we internally feel a definite no.

Saying no is a necessary art that is better to be mastered earlier in life rather than later. As the writer Annie Dillard once beautifully said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If we spend our days blindly saying yes to every request, how, then, can we ever muster the courage and ability to say no when we must? How do we build that discernment and safeguard our own sanity and solitude?

While choice is always present, it doesn’t always feel that way. Saying no is so difficult that we end up saying yes to things that we shouldn’t. Often we don’t want to hurt feelings, but sometimes we don’t even know our own desire in the moment and it’s easier to say yes than to be mindful. So we grin and bear it, failing to realize the self-sabotage that we inflict on ourselves in how we manage our time and our lives.

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown shares a variety of methods by which we can politely say no. He defines an essentialist as someone who pursues less but better; living by design, not by default; and “deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many.” Simply put, an essentialist is good at saying no so that he or she can focus on and remain vigilant to things that are truly meaningful and worthwhile.

McKeown says the following about decision-making:

“We often think of choice as a thing. But a choice is not a thing. Our options may be things, but a choice—a choice is an action. It is not just something we have but something we do. This experience brought me to the liberating realization that while we may not always have control over our options, we always have control over how we choose among them.”

And of course, when we think about whether we want to say yes or no to a request, we think about our time and schedule. What we forget to consider is our attention. As Jason Fried from Basecamp said, “Time and attention aren’t the same thing. They aren’t even related.”

You, I, and Beyoncé all have the same 24 hours in a day, but what makes us different is our level of attention to a project or objective. Managing 24 hours can be written down on a paper calendar, but managing our level of attention to those tasks is far less tangible and more unpredictable. I find myself saying no to a lot more things after understanding this difference. “Just 20 minutes” seems like an easy obligation, but really, will I be present? Will I be focused, attentive, and invested? I may have the 20 minutes to be there physically, but I may not have the attention to do the 20 minutes justice. Better to say no.

Photo cred: Cassandra Allred/Crown Publishing Group found via http://www.npr.org/2014/07/26/334038029/lessons-in-essentialism-getting-more-out-of-life-by-doing-less

McKeown outlines six ideas for saying no, but I’ll share my favorite three:

Separate the decision from the relationship. When someone asks you to do something, it’s easy to confuse the request with your relationship. Sometimes they seem so interconnected, you might forget that denying the request is not the same as denying the person. Only once you’re able to separate the decision from the relationship can you make a clear decision and then find the courage and compassion to communicate it.

Saying no gracefully doesn’t have to mean using the word no. Essentialists choose no more often than they say no. There may be a time when the most graceful way to say no is to simply say a blunt no. But whether it’s “I’m flattered that you thought of me but I’m afraid I don’t have the bandwidth” or “I would very much like to, but I’m already overcommitted,” there are a variety of ways to refuse a request clearly and politely without actually using the word no. 

Remind yourself that everyone is selling something. This doesn’t mean you have to be cynical of people; I don’t mean to imply people shouldn’t be trusted. I’m simply saying that, at some level, everyone is selling something—an idea, a viewpoint, an opinion—in exchange for your time. Simply being aware of what is being sold allows you to be more deliberate in deciding whether you want to “buy” it.

Like anything worthwhile, it’s a practice. In my experience, building the confidence to say no is parallel to building one’s own confidence and self-respect. Nowadays, it’s easier for me to say no to things because I understand there are other activities that are more meaningful and purposeful (like being with friends or reading a book or working on a side project).

Essentialism is a fantastic read, a kind of productivity book that approaches the various ways of honing and honoring what truly matters in our lives and being aware of the long-term consequences of making smart decisions that impact tomorrow.