The Quest for a Life Less Stressed

The Idle Life

The Audacity of Nope: Why Learning to Say No Can Make You (and Everyone Else) Happier

Posted on April 17, 2010 by Beau

Photo courtesy of JMV

If you’re like most people in this day and age, you probably spend a lot of time feeling overwhelmed, overbooked, and stretched way too thin. Between work, family, hobbies, friends, and a thousand other commitments, it can feel like time for yourself is impossible to come by.

Once you get in the habit of saying yes to every request that comes your way, it can be hard to break the cycle. Trying to please everyone can become addictive. You don’t want to let people down or disappoint anyone, so you just keep taking on more and more until you’re drowning in commitments.

Why It’s OK to Say No

While at first it might seem like a good idea to keep saying yes to everything, because it makes you look like a hero to your friends and family, or gets you some recognition at work, there are two reasons why it’s not a good idea.

The first is that eventually you’re going to burn out. It happens to everyone eventually, no matter how much willpower or passion you have. The human body wasn’t meant to operate under stress for long periods of time, and if you keep it at an elevated level of stress for a long time, either your body is going to revolt or you’re eventually going to snap under the strain.

When either of these happens, it usually means that the house of cards you’ve carefully built comes tumbling down, leaving everyone you’re committed to in the lurch. What’s worse, disappointing a few people by being upfront with them and turning down commitments, giving them the opportunity to find other ways to get things done, or suddenly not being able to fulfill any commitments to anyone? Worst of all, you’re the one suffering, which certainly isn’t fair repayment for trying to do good deeds.

The other downside of overcommitment is that no one ever gets your best. Because you can’t devote your full attention to just a few important things, everybody (your boss, your kids, your friends) just gets “what you can spare.” Many people who take on too many commitments aren’t good at prioritizing and make everything Priority #1, so that truly important things get put off so you can address the latest little crisis or task.

Eventually that kind of behavior starts to hurt your work performance, your relationships, and even your personal sense of well-being. We’re happiest when we’re able to focus on things that are most important to us and do our best on those things. When you take on too much, it’s easy to lose track of what’s really important, making you feel like you’re just spinning your wheels and not making progress on what’s most important.

It can also end up coming back to haunt you at work, since your boss isn’t getting to see what you can do when you have time to really dedicate yourself to achieving great things. Instead, they see the results of what you were able to accomplish under a time crunch, and probably while being distracted by a million other tasks. It’s not good for you in the long term. Your boss is going to be happier if you deliver quality results that make him or her look good.

Saying No? Yes, You Can!

OK, two Obama puns is probably more than enough for one article.

At this point, you may be thinking, “Sure, saying no sounds great, but how the hell do I manage it without getting fired or losing friends?”

Two strategies I’ve found that work great for saying no and getting your time back are: Setting Expectations and Blocking Off Time.

One thing I’ve noticed about people who never say no is that they almost never express how overbooked and stretched thin they are to the people who can actually do something about it, like their boss. Instead, they complain to coworkers: “Can you believe Jim just gave me another project to do? Doesn’t he know that I’ve already got 50 hours worth of work to do this week?” My guess is that no, Jim doesn’t know that, especially if you didn’t tell him when he gave you the new project.

In my experience, we really have no idea how busy other people are, even if we have a decent idea of what their responsibilities are. That’s because we’re not mind readers, so we rely on other people to tell us what their status is. Since we’ve all got our own work/issues/etc, we’re probably not considering the impact of another commitment when we ask someone to take something on. We’re too busy thinking about our own.

Setting Expectations Effectively

The key to setting expectations in a way that will actually help you lessen your load is to just be up front and honest. When Jim asks you if you can take on a project that’ll take 20 hours (or even just 2), you’re going to get a lot further if you just say, “Well, I’ve already got about 50 hours of work lined up for this week. If you want this to be my focus, I’m going to need to postpone a bunch of the other stuff to get this done.” Then you two can have a conversation about what the priorities really are, or whether this shiny new project can wait until other work has been completed first.

Doesn’t that seem a lot clearer and more effective than, “OK, I’ll try to fit it in.” In the latter statement, you’ve given no idea how realistic that is, so Jim will be assuming that you will indeed be able to fit it in.

Another important part of setting expectations is first getting clear on what your expectations for yourself and your life are. Do you expect that you shouldn’t have to work more than 40 hours a week to bring home a decent wage, except in rare circumstances that are absolute necessities? Or do you subconsciously expect that in order to have a job you have to take on anything your boss asks, whether it’s reasonable or not?

Personally, spending as much time as possible with my wife and toddler are hugely important to me, so I leave at 5 every day to make sure I can spend as much time as possible with them before our daughter’s bedtime. Could I get more recognition or maybe a promotion if I slaved away for 60 or 70 hours a week? Maybe. Would it make me happier or more fulfilled than the time I spend with my family? No way.

The same goes for your life outside of work: Do you expect that you should have some free time to yourself to read, paint, meditate, or whatever makes you happy, whether it means that other people will have to fend for themselves during those times? Or do you subconsciously expect that you have to be at the beck and call of your kids, your spouse, your social groups, or whoever?

Before you can really start setting expectations with other people (“Sorry, Billy, you’re going to have to pick one sport per season to play. The family needs some downtime each week.”) you need to first be really clear with yourself what you expect out of life. Then you can interact with others from a place of strength and self-assurance, rather than reacting to every request without knowing what it is you really want out of life.

Blocking Off Time

Blocking off time is a pretty simple idea. At least once a day (if not more), just set aside time that you can use to focus, relax, learn, work really hard, whatever you need to do. If it’s time during your work day, set yourself as busy on your calendar so you can’t get invited to meetings. Make this time as inviolate as possible, because it really is just as important as anything else you could do during the day.

Don’t check your email, turn off your IM, don’t answer your phone, whatever you need to do to keep focused during this time. If someone comes by your desk, let them know that you’re right in the middle of something and will get in touch with them as soon as your time block is over. Ask them to email you whatever it is that they need- chances are that you’ll be able to answer them over email later, or they’ll get the help they need from someone else instead.

I recognize that blocking off time isn’t necessarily possible in every type of job. If you’re working on an assembly line or answering phone calls in a customer service job, you probably can’t just ignore everyone during time you’re scheduled for someone else. However, if you’re being given projects that you’re expected to complete, and that you just don’t have time for in your regular schedule, talk to your boss about it. Let them know that you think if you could have two hours of uninterrupted time you could make huge progress or complete the project, rather than taking weeks to finish it while fitting it in around everything else, maybe they’ll let you take that time off the phone when call volume is usually lowest to get the project done. You’ll never know unless you ask, and chances are that they’ll be really happy to get the project finished sooner and with better quality.

You can also practice blocking off time outside of work, too. If practicing a creative hobby of yours, like writing or painting, is important to you, set a time for it in the evening or on the weekend, like 10-12 on Saturday. Let your spouse know that you’re “off duty” during that time, and that you won’t make other plans during that time unless it’s something meaningful to you, like seeing an old friend. Let your spouse do the same thing. Chances are that both of you will enjoy having that stress-free, enjoyable time to pursue what’s important to you, and it’ll likely help you feel less miserable even when you have to do things you don’t want to do.

I hope this post encourages you to “Just Don’t Do It” sometimes in your life. I think you’ll be amazed at how much taking back and honoring your time will do for your attitude, energy, and outlook on life.

Thoughts? Questions? Please leave them in the comments below! I’d love to hear if you’ve been able to start saying no more often in your life.


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4 to “The Audacity of Nope: Why Learning to Say No Can Make You (and Everyone Else) Happier”

  1. Thanks for this — it’s just what I need right now. I thought I was being “of service to others” when I decided a few years ago to say yes if often as possible. But it hasn’t worked out that way at all. Now I’m overwhelmed and feeling under-appreciated. I like that your suggestions and a few and simple. Perfect!

  2. Oops – made a few typos, sorry! I meant to say, “…yes AS often as possible,” and, “I like that your suggestions ARE few and simple.”

    I’ve been trying to simplify my life while commenting more on blogs by using a speech recognition program that doesn’t always recognize my speech. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!

  3. FutureExpat says:

    Excellent! I’ve mastered the art of saying no, but I’m forwarding this link to one of my kids, who at almost 30 still needs to learn this lesson. . .

  4. Joe says:

    Great point about setting good expectations. I’m working on this!

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