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Why, when, and how to say ‘No’

Saying no is hard, but it is possible


“It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on what’s important.” — Steve Jobs

Saying no is one of the most important tools in your locker. This might sound a bit cold, so here is a list to persuade you otherwise:

  • You’ll have more time for your nearest and dearest.
  • Saying no to what is not important, validates what is.
  • Saying yes to things you don’t want to do, gives you less time for things you do want to do.
  • Your ability to deliver will increase tenfold.
  • Time is one of your most valuable resources, and you can’t get it back.

Your choices depend on your values however. If helping people in need is important to you, then saying no to a night out with friends might be the right thing to do. It all depends on your perspective.

But first and foremost, you’ve got to look after yourself. It’s like a parent on a plane that loses cabin pressure. They need to put on their own oxygen mask first; only then can they help their child.

Can you meaningfully help others if you don’t look after yourself?

Parents should always put on their own mask first, and so should you.

The problem is…

Saying yes is easy, saying no is hard. There are lots of reasons for this. It might be guilt, a feeling of obligation, fear of missing out, or just plain fear. And even if you want to say yes to everything, you simply don’t have the time.

So when do you know if it’s a yes or a no?

Life is rarely black or white, that’s the problem. And yes or no answers usually depend on many things: how busy you are, who’s asking, potential gains or losses, or even what mood you’re in. A yes today might even close the door on a much bigger yes tomorrow, so you need to be careful. And what about your time? It generally comes down to time, and if you drag your feet on a decision, guess what? You’ll have even less of that.

To say I’m not a fan of doubt and uncertainty is an understatement, and after losing 15 years of my life through addiction… well let’s just say I want to do things a little bit quicker.

As a result, I’ve read far and wide looking for techniques to provide me with a framework to make faster and better yes/no decisions.

What I found, and more importantly, what I’ve implemented, has had a tremendous impact on my life. My productivity, ability to make quick decisions, clarity of mind, and general wellbeing have improved immensely. I no longer procrastinate over what I should or should not do. Life just seems to flow, and amazing opportunities are falling at my feet. Obviously ‘saying no’ is not the only reason why, but an ability to make quick decisions has been a key factor in many of my wins over the last year.

Here are three of my favorite techniques for making yes/no decisions:

1. If it’s not a ‘Hell Yeah’, it’s a ‘No’. — Derek Sivers

When I first heard this phrase, it immediately became one of my life mantras. It’s more of a feeling than a rational decision, and certainly can’t be used for every life choice. But it provides a very useful platform for making quick decisions. Generally speaking, if I’m faced with a decision and my gut is screaming “hell yeah”, I do it; if it’s not, I don’t. But life can be elusive, and it’s not always that simple. Then I came a across a metric system (courtesy of the amazing Kyle Maynard) for defining this very principle. You basically rate your decision on a scale of 1 to 10. If it’s an 8 and upwards, it’s a yes, and if it’s a 6 or below, it’s a no. So what about 7? This is also a no. As the masterful Tim Ferriss states, a 7 is usually an obligation, and often doesn’t reflect your true values or goals.

2. Will ‘this’ make the boat go faster?

I’ve had this mantra taped to my coffee stained laptop for the last year. I came across it in an article by Benjamin Hardy, and it has had a huge impact on my life. It was first used by the Great Britain rowing team for the 2000 Sidney Olympics. In the run-up to the games, when faced with a decision they asked themselves this question: Will ‘this’ make our boat go faster? The answer determined their decision. For example, when tempted to eat junk food, or go out for a night on the town, if their decision would not make their boat go faster, then they said no.

My coffee stained laptop

My boat is a metaphor for my goals, values, and life purpose. This includes my career, spending time with loved ones, helping and connecting with people, looking after my mental health, and keeping fit and healthy. When faced with a decision, if a yes does not make my ‘boat’ go faster, then I say no.

3. Put it on a page

The first two techniques work great for making quick decisions, but life can be more complicated than a quick ‘hell yeah’, or making ‘metaphorical boats’ go faster. When I need to make a big decision, I put everything on a page. It doesn’t have to be rocket science. A simple pro’s and con’s list works great, but you MUST write it out. I can’t stress enough how helpful this can be. If you want to take it further, it is highly beneficial to write out your options, potential outcomes, and the consequences of the decision at hand. But the important part is putting it on a page, and then the right answer tends to jump out.

This covers the why and the when; the question is, how do you say no?

In his highly illuminating book Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss put forward a specific question about ‘saying no’ to over 130 of the world’s best performers across many fields. He also created an excellent 17 minute podcast on how to do it in a skilful manner. Robin Bernstein, a professor at Harvard University, has also spoke about her struggles with saying no. So much so that she developed five principles and wrote an article about it called The Art of ‘No’.

I’ve combined insights from each of these experts on how to say no, and more importantly, how to do it artfully:

  • Explain the predicament you’re in. If you have a watertight reason that will stop the conversation in its tracks, let it fly. Nothing better than solid logic.
  • Don’t explain. Sometimes you can leave yourself open to judgement and negotiation if you try to explain yourself. If this is the case, just say: “Sorry, I’ll have to take a pass”. You don’t have to defend your position.
  • Decline with gratitude. Be grateful for the offer, but kindly refuse: “Thank you for the opportunity. I really appreciate you asking, but I’m maxed out with other commitments at the moment”.
  • Show them that you thought carefully about it: “It sounds like such good fun (or good opportunity if it is career based). I’ve had to think long and hard about it, and I know I’m going to regret it, but I’ll have to take a pass this time. As good as it seems, I just have too much on right now”.
  • Make it non-personal. Establish a blanket policy that applies to everyone, not just the person asking: “I’m sorry, but I’ve made it a policy to say no to any social events until I finish my…”, or “I’ll have to take a pass, I’m on a coffee shop (or meetings) diet for the next two months”.
  • Volunteer someone else, but make sure they are up to the challenge.
  • Just say no. If it’s something absurd, just say no, or if it’s an unreasonable message, delete it.

Take away Message

Saying yes is easy, saying no is hard.

That’s why you need to know why, when, and how to ‘say no’.

Why should you say no? You will be able to concentrate on what’s really important, including your loved ones, your career, your values, and your time.

When should you say no? If it feels like a no, it’s generally a no. Ask yourself: “Is it a hell yeah”? Does it align with my boat? If not, it’s probably a no. If these tactics fail, write it out on a page. This strategy has been life changing for me.

How should you say no? Maybe you explain yourself, maybe you don’t, but you must be grateful, thoughtful, and most of all, make it non-personal.

This strategy might come across as a little cold or self-centred, but it’s the only way you can focus on what’s important. This might include helping people in need, saving the environment, or becoming ridiculously rich; that’s up to you. Either way, you can’t do anything well unless you look after yourself first.

It’s like the parent on a plane. They have to put their own mask on first, and so do you.

Saying no is hard, but it is possible.

“When you say yes to others, make sure you are not saying no to yourself” — Paulo Coelho

Originally published in A Lust for Life on 8th August 2018

I write regularly for A Lust for Life, but feel free to follow my articles on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. You will also find my articles on publishing platforms Thrive Global and Medium.

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