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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

In Defense of Saying "No"

There I am, nursing my third cup of coffee, longing for my Memory Foam mattress and imagining how much more sane I would be if I weren’t a reporter, didn’t have many friends, didn’t live near family, and had enough free time to watch the occasional TV show. Then I’d know what “bored” meant. Then I could feel as carefree as the chicks behind me, swapping stories about their (blissful, worry- and deadline-free) nights of Sex and the City marathons and Facebook.

I don’t even have time for Facebook anymore, I think to myself. Same for TV. Hey, I’m doing well if I can even catch up on my emails or call a friend back before 9:30 PM.

Such is the life of the over-extended. Ever been there?

I bet you have. That’s why you clicked on this story, isn’t it? You’re a career-minded lady or gent with way too much on your plate, and you desperately need a five-step, how-to plan for saying no, for simplifying, for kicking that highlighted, dog-eared, and crammed-full agenda to the curb, once and for all.

Well, unfortunately, I haven’t found that silver bullet. In fact, I’m an overachieving, people-pleasing perfectionist who would (almost) rather chop off her right foot than disappoint someone by saying “no.” I’m so caught up in this daily struggle of saying “yes” when I need to say “no” that pretending to be an expert on the subject would be grossly disingenuous.

I can, however, lead a logical discussion on why it is that we back ourselves so far in a corner that all we do is daydream about a simple life of reruns and mindless Facebook stalking, and why we need to stop.

Oh, and I do have some tips. But I want to hear yours, too, because—as you can see—I still need some help.

Why Our “Yes, of Course!” Logic is Faulty

Now, let’s be clear: This discussion isn’t about the absolutely necessary commitments. If you have to stay up late to finish that big presentation you’ve got tomorrow, you better embrace it and make some coffee. If your friend’s car breaks down, and you’re one mile away, follow your instinct and be kind. (I know you will.)

What I’m talking about are those extra things—the requests that give you pause before they work into your overactive guilt complex; the invitations to events you don’t want to go to but feel you must; the “oh, could you also… ?” requests you know will take hours, not minutes.

Those are the ones we need to turn down—and stop feeling guilty about. Why? Here’s some tough love: We don’t matter that much. I know you hate disappointing others (I’ve actually had nightmares about it), but honestly, what’s going to happen if you don’t babysit your cousin? Your aunt and uncle will call the next person on the list. And no, you won’t get indefinitely bumped off it. What’s the consequence of turning down a group dinner one night? You might think the gang will be rocking back and forth on a bare, concrete floor in despair, but they’ll really be out having a great time. And they’ll be doing it again soon, at which point you can join in.

If I were a traveling self-help expert, prone to clichés, I’d tell you that “saying no to others means saying yes to yourself.” That’s lame, and we both know we need more than refrigerator-magnet sayings to change our deeply engrained ways, but here’s the thing: Most of the time we say yes because of what we believe we stand to lose—respect, friendships, mountaintop status. What we forget, though, is what we stand to gain by saying no.

We need time to pause from the action, to refresh our mind and body, to get a good night’s sleep, three square meals, and a cup of coffee we enjoy but don’t require. Because you can’t enjoy a hobby fully when your mind is occupied with 15 other looming commitments. And you can’t do you best work when your mind hasn’t had a decent break in weeks.

Here’s what I long for: sanity and time to recharge; a guilt complex that’s not quite as active; and priorities, plus the free time to develop them.

How to Start Saying No  

OK, now that I’ve convinced you (maybe? hopefully?) that it’s OK to say no, it’s time to start doing it. Now, don’t get me wrong: Whoever belittles our anguish and gives advice like, “Just say no,” should be punched in the face. But there are a few baby steps that I think we all should try:

1. Defer Giving an Answer

The next time you get that queasy, “how the heck am I going to fit this in?” feeling in the pit of your stomach, defer it. Tell the asker that you’re not sure, that you’ll have to get back to him or her. Then, go home and think about it. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution here—these situations are touchy and highly circumstantial—but you can really think about whether it would be in your best interest to say "yes" or "no."

2. Communicate (and Don’t Feel Obligated to Offer an Explanation)

If you’ve decided to pass, now figure out what means of communication is easiest for you. For example, if it’s the face-to-face contact that throws you off, opt for email or text to break the bad news.

And keep it simple—why fumble around for a good excuse? Imagine how freeing it would be to just be able to say “I won’t be able to make it,” when someone invites you somewhere you don’t want to go. Sometimes a “no” is all you need. And once you hit send, wipe it from your memory.


3. Nip the Guilt Trip

Tell that queasy feeling to take a hike. Really. Let your conscience get worked up over more important, ethical matters.

And get to the root of your complex: It’s exciting to feel important, to feel indispensible. But if you’re not, it’s an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation sure to lead to frustration.

Here’s a personal example: I used to volunteer as a job-readiness coach at a low-income housing community. Every Thursday, I drove 30 minutes—in traffic—to help unemployed people build resumes, fill out applications, and hone their interview skills. It wasn’t a formal program, just two of us who committed to help.

One week, I got a call from my fellow volunteer. One of the residents wanted to know if we could offer training on a Tuesday night, in addition to Thursday. My buddy couldn’t make it and wanted to know if I could.

I went into super-stress-palms-sweaty mode. It was hard enough for me to leave work at 5 on Thursdays, but to do it Tuesday, too? Plus, I was working on a big, time-intensive story and Tuesday was one of the only days that week when I had carved out time to work out.

Can you guess what I did? On Tuesday, I left work early to haul it (in stand-still traffic) to the neighborhood community center. And can you guess what happened? The lady didn’t show. I waited 45 minutes before I left, and two days later, I made my regular trip again.

In retrospect, it would have been perfectly fine for me to say, "I can’t make it. Ask her to stop by on Thursday.” And the next time I heard a similar voicemail with the same request, that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s the key: Rather than focus on the negatives (who you’ve failed), remind yourself of the positives (who you’re benefiting). In some cases, that person is you. In other cases, it may be people completely unrelated to the situation. In my example, my boss would have gotten better work from me had I focused on my story. And my fiancé would have gotten to hang out with an energized, post-workout Caroline, instead of a frustrated, snappy Caroline.

Fellow bobble-heads, we’ve mastered the art of unilateral, often subconscious yeses. But it’s time for a change. Let’s give this head shake thing a try.

What do you think? Do you have any tips for saying no?

Photo of woman thinking courtesy of Shutterstock.