You’re busy. I’m busy. If there’s one thing I hear more than anything else in small talk it’s how busy everyone is. It’s generally with a tone of frustration, feeling like victims of others’ demands or of circumstances out of our control.
The good news is that we are in control of more than what we seem to be. So much of our time pressure results from overcommitting. We are the problem. It happens because we don’t say “no” as much as we could.
I get it. I’ve spent years being a chronic overcommitter. I like to help people—most likely, so do you.
People matter to me. Relationships matter to me. So I used to struggle with requests or invitations because I didn’t want to risk needlessly hurting another’s feelings or sending a wrong message.
That seems admirable on the surface but we can quickly slip into becoming people-pleasers at the expense of neglecting greater priorities. Becoming the guy who repairs everyone else’s stuff, yet his wife’s honey-do list never gets attention. Or the gal who is constantly running around helping out friends while the needs of her family on the home front get pushed off.
There is no way you can satisfy every request or seize every opportunity. Life is choices. That involves having to say “no”. Yet you don’t have to risk being rude or ungrateful, nor do you have to feel guilty about it.
Here are some strategies that have helped me to get better at saying “no” more often:
- Have a clear sense of your main priorities. It’s similar to spending on a cash basis—when faced with a choice to spend, you can see how much is in the envelope. You’ve predetermined where your money will be spent so when faced with a new option, you are forced to choose. Similarly, build your priorities into your weekly schedule—allocate specific times for that which matters most. That becomes the framework for your decision-making. Every other request, invitation, opportunity will have to fit in around those priorities. If it won’t, say “no”.
“I would love to, but…”. Once you have times established for priorities and essential tasks, you’ve given yourself a great gift. You simply refer to the conflict in your schedule. I go so far as to block out time in my schedule for things like planning, reading, etc. I consider such things priority appointments with myself! There’s no guilt or risk of offending by simply saying, “I would love to, but I already have an appointment then.” And I do—with me.
“I can’t now but I could…”. For those times you really would like to accept an invitation from someone but just can’t at that time, simply suggest another time when you could. This is really useful with your kids. I try to not say “no” without saying when I could. For example, “I’m sorry, son, I can’t play now. But I can in fifteen minutes when I finish doing this.”
Telling your boss “no”. No one likes to tell their boss “no”. There are times, however, when he may tell you to do something that means you won’t be able to do another task. The solution is to clarify. Simply say, “I’d be happy to do that now for you; however, I won’t be able to finish this other project in the timeframe you want. Which would you prefer I do first?”
Saying “no” really isn’t as tough as we’ve made it in our minds. Just be honest. Look for an option that works yet stay true to your priorities. Nobody can do everything and people understand that. A little explanation, courtesy, or clarification goes a long way.
Question: When is it toughest for you to say "no" and how have you overcome that? Share your answer in the comments below.