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Saying “No” To Others Means Saying “Yes” To Yourself

How to assertively say "no" in order to be more productive and happy in life.

Someone at work sends you an email asking if you would be willing to join them in project at work. You could do it – it wouldn’t be difficult, but you don’t necessarily want to. You feel bad declining the request because you want to maintain your work relationship. So you say yes, but then immediately realize you have so much on your plate.

We’ve all be there. I find myself regretting saying “yes” more than saying “no”. Once I figured out how to say no, and overcome the discomfort the first few times actually doing it, there has been an entire shift in how I value time and myself as a whole.

If you look at some of the top leaders in the world, they describe their path to success more in focusing on what they don’t do. For example, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates make a point to sincerely evaluate what truly needs to be done by them versus a team member, or not at all.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Warren Buffett

Here’s how to assertively say “no” that make you more productive and happy in life.

Set your priorities.

The first step of this process is actually more-so before the ask from someone else. If you know what is important to you, it’s a lot easier to know how to allocate your time.

When my company went through layoffs, it turned my priority list out of whack. The reflection made me realize the higher level effects of my every day choices. I realized that living in New York City with my partner is of highest priority. That meant that my job prospects were limited by geography, and I could change my day-to-day job responsibilities to ensure the priority of location is met.

On a larger level, it meant that my non-work life means more to me than what I do at my job. That’s not to say that I don’t value my job. I want to do well with something that fulfills me, but it’s not my entire identity.

It doesn’t need to take fear of losing your job to set your priorities. All it takes is intentional reflection on what your goals are for both life and work. Do you want to be promoted in a certain number of years? Do you want to run a marathon this year? Do you want to grow your side hustle? Write these priorities down and be proud of them.

Know your worth.

There’s a difference between having time and something being worth your time. We all have the same amount of time each day. When someone asks you to do something, it means that it will take away from something else. As you evaluate saying “yes” or “no” to a request, really think about how much your time is worth – how much you are worth. Think about the priorities you set for yourself, and place requests next to those. Where do they fall? Some considerations include:

  • Is this a requirement for your job?
  • If it’s not a requirement, will adding this project take away from your ability to do your job responsibilities?
  • Will this further your career in the direction that aligns with your priorities?
  • Will it take away time from things that are higher priority in your life? Are you willing to do this?

Think about time not just as money, but as life currency. With this mindset, everything becomes a negotiation with what is truly important to you.

Negotiate the ask.

After evaluating the request, if you’ve decided to say yes but have some reservations then you can propose a counter-offer.

  • Ask who else is on the team. You’re stating that you want to participate because it adds value to you but you’re not picking up the whole project by yourself.
  • Have a higher level role where possible. If it’s an article publication, be primary author. If it’s a business proposal, be the person to pitch it to senior leadership.
  • If you don’t want to be the face of the project, state how you’re interested in contributing. The key is to ensure you’re getting as much out of the request as the person who asked you in the first place.

By stating, and not asking, it places the burden on the other person to ask you for more. If they counter, this is okay. What you’ve done is started a dialogue and shown that you do have boundaries.

Sometimes the directives come from your boss and thus you feel like you have no choice. If this is the case, you can still request a dialogue. Set one-on-one time with them to brainstorm together how you can re-arrange priorities. Come to the table with the list of everything on your plate at work and ask your boss what tasks are most urgent. I’ve found a lot of times that discussion enlightens my boss to things I shouldn’t have been doing anymore and allows space for new responsibilities.

Say no, and nothing more.

When you’re ready to say no, practice it. Consider writing it down and even play it out verbally with a partner/mentor. Focus on being succinct without apology or further explanation. It is tempting to provide the list of reasons why you decline because you feel this strengthens your case, but you don’t necessarily owe this to anyone. If you feel the need to offer an explanation, wait for the follow-up question if there is one. Allow for brief empty silence while remembering your rationale, then make your final points for closure.

State your closing remarks.

If you’re concerned about being the person who isn’t a team player because you don’t say yes to everything, how you say no will save the day. Here are a few options:

  • Thank the person for the opportunity and say that this isn’t a good time to take something on. Remember, if you say yes to too many things, you can end up doing more damage by not being the best contributor that you can be.
  • Offer another teammate that you know had been seeking a chance to shine or might be a better fit. This is a great way to meet your needs while also lifting others up.
  • If you are a content expert, offer your time to provide advising on the topic to start and let the team run with it. This way, the team is not left having to re-create the wheel and potentially go in the wrong direction.

Saying “no” is hard. It’s uncomfortable. However, like a muscle it is skill that strengthens with practice and time. We’ve been developed in an environment that praises how much you can get done in the shortest amount of time. Personally, this has led to one burnout episode after another. It’s had a lot of collateral damage to my wellbeing, relationships with others, and overall outlook on life.

By setting yourself at the center for how you spend your time, others will come to understand what you value. You’ll find that saying “no” to others, really is a “yes” to yourself.

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