5 Ways to Say No in 2017

[A version of this post appeared on Medium on Sunday.]

We’re the sort of people who know the value of yes, and — . In fact, in Generation Space, we’ve written about Stephen Colbert’s commencement speech in which he touted that attitude and about the ways astronauts as well as the first nurse to the astronauts espoused that approach. I also wrote about saying yes for Minerva Rising, where I also said a few things about saying no:

Choosing not to do something can empower us, can remind us that we have choices. Saying no to one thing can allow us to say yes to something more important, even if we don’t see that bigger, better thing coming yet.

Saying no, temporarily and selectively, seems absolutely necessary for our writing lives and our personal relationship. So, we’re contemplating ways to say no this coming year.

Block your access to the internet temporarily. We wrote about this last week and offered specific tools. It’s our fourth suggestion for Get Organized in 2017.

Make a list of things not to do. We hadn’t really thought about a don’t-do list before, but it’s part of the Passion Planner we just started filling out. On each monthly planning page, there’s a box for such a list, right under people to see and places to go. A don’t-do list makes a strange sort of sense. It can help us become more aware of the less important tasks or distractions that take our time each day. If you keep a list of things to do, why not also keep a list of things not to do so that you’re more able to do the things you need or want to do?

Wait 24 hours — or, better yet, 48 hours — before saying yes. The idea behind this sage advice we’ve heard from others over the years is that a waiting period for yes allows you to think things through as a real decision in the context of everything else you’re doing. It gears you up for saying no and, even if you say yes, conveys that you’re not an easy mark for extra tasks. It also has an added benefit that many don’t realize until they’ve tried it for a while: someone else may say yes before you do and make it unnecessary for you to do the task at all. Waiting a day or two to respond to non-time-sensitive email — whether or not it’s a request — also slows down the back-and-forth that can be especially distracting.

Say NO early in the day. The book The ONE Thing emphasizes doing the most important task first and discusses the ways that willpower wanes as we expend effort over the course of the day. While that book didn’t itself propose our idea of saying no early in the day, our idea fits those commonsense principles of taking advantage of high energy and focusing on what matters most. Saying no early keeps the day clear for those tasks that deserve yes and also flexes your no muscles for later in the day when the lifting may seem heavier.

Practice and use ways to say no in ways that aren’t negative. Here are some practical suggestions for phrases to incorporate into your no.

  • Thanks for thinking of me for this opportunity. It’s really interesting. Even though I can’t do it, I hope you’ll keep me in mind in the future.
  • I’m happy you asked me, but I don’t think I’m the best person for this one.
  • My schedule is really tight right now, so this wouldn’t work well for either of us. I know you want this idea to succeed, and I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.
  • As a rule, I don’t ______. (Beware: If you make a rule, you need to stick to it, no matter who asks, which can make this phrasing a great strategy for extra no’s down the line. So if you tell someone, for instance, that you don’t write blurbs or go out with friends on weeknights, don’t make exceptions next time someone asks.)
  • I know someone who might be able to do this: _____. (Beware: Do not throw someone else under the yes bus. In fact, unless you know for sure that the person will be open to the opportunity and also able to say no, you should offer to contact the person you’re suggesting.)

And if it really is a good opportunity or fits with your existing goals or tasks but isn’t exactly what you want, suggest an alternative that works for you, as in, You know, I can’t do that, but here’s something I can do if you want to work with me on this idea.

Finally, jot down the day and time of each no, celebrate your decision to prioritize, and make no a happy occasion.

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