How to say no

How to say no and why it’s important

Most of us struggle with how to say no. It’s not really a surprise. For all of human history, we’ve been conditioned to act in ways that help us to belong. If we were cast out or isolated we’d be ostracised and at risk. So we tend to want to please others and to be helpful. This article will help you understand how to say no and why it’s important that you do.

Focus on the Rocks

You’ve likely heard the story about the University Lecturer. The one where they take a big jar and ask their students to fit in a pile of rocks, pebbles and sand. 

If the students add the sand first, there is no room for the pebbles or rocks. 

But if they add the rocks first, then there is room for the pebbles around them and the sand around those. 

It’s a commonly used metaphor for how we should focus our time. If we spend our time on the small stuff (the sand and pebbles), we have no space to focus on the essential things (the rocks). 

I’ve used this approach for a while now, making sure I block out time in my diary for the most important things.  

In my last article, I wrote about the five permissions to give yourself so you can identify your most significant tasks. 

The challenge is, often there seems to be just too much important stuff, and we continue to feel overwhelmed. 

When the jar is too small

Oliver Burkeman is the author of “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It“. He has an interesting take on the rocks and jar story. He says most people are trying to fit in too many big rocks. Even if they can minimise the small stuff (or worse still, other people’s small stuff), they find there isn’t enough space for the big rocks in their jar. 

The four thousand weeks of his book’s title is close to the average life expectancy in the developed world.

What we do with those four thousand weeks counts. 

Time is a finite resource, but the list of things we could be doing with it is infinite. Most of us operate under the delusion that we will eventually tick everything off our to-do list, and the truth is we never will. There will always be more we could be doing, so we have to get ruthless about our most important priorities. What are the things we want to make space for?

What are you saying no to?

I often ask my clients, “If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to” 

It’s a question that forces them to think about whether they are saying yes to things in service of their big goals. 

Be clear on your boundaries.

The first step in saying no is to be clear on your boundaries. There are several ways to look at these. When it comes to how we use our time, there are two I see as particularly important:

Schedule boundaries

Are weekends sacred to you? Perhaps reading the bedtime story is non-negotiable? Maybe it’s having a two week family holiday every year? Get clear on your non-negotiables when it comes to your schedule and block the time out in your diary. 

Do this for the big blocks of time like vacations and the smaller blocks like the school run or the lunchtime dog walk. In this time of electronic calendars, when others can drop meetings into your diary without a conversation, this is particularly important. 

I have several schedule boundaries. 

– Daily dog walking time

– No meeting Fridays

– Quarterly reflection weeks

There may be occasions when I’m flexible on them if required, but the time is blocked in my diary and therefore requires me to consciously ask the “If I say yes to this, what am I saying no to?” question. 

Having felt some initial resistance to this and being concerned about being available when clients wanted me to be, the response has been interesting. Without exception, clients respect the boundaries, and several have shared how much they admire my ability to set them. Often it’s something they aspire to be able to do themselves. 

Content boundaries

If the first question is about when you spend your time on things, the second is about what you spend your time on. 

Even if you have identified your big rocks, what about when the jar isn’t big enough for them all?

This is an issue I’ve been grappling with for years. I’m a bit of a personal development junkie. Barely a week goes by when there isn’t a course, webinar or programme that catches my eye. I’ve lost count of the number of self-paced courses I’ve spent money on and never finished. I’ve learned that I need the accountability of a group/instructor to complete these. 

More importantly, I’ve learned that I need to think about whether what interests me is actually in service of my goals. 

Getting clear on the tiny handful of big priorities has been critical – and saying no to everything else. 

The 1-3 big things

Usually, we have several priorities for the year. 8-10 things we might want to achieve. And we spend our time flitting between them, not focussing or making the progress we would wish to. 

I’m trying a new approach this year, and if January is anything to go by, it’s working well! With my coach, I identified two work goals and one personal goal for the first six months of the year. These are the things I want to spend my time and energy on.

Having identified these, I know that anything unaligned with them takes time away from what’s most important. And it becomes much easier to say no. 

Research shows that we are much more productive when we focus only on one thing at a time and then move on to the next rather than working on several things at once. This concept applies at the micro-level (e.g. the fact that I’ve put on do not disturb so that I won’t be distracted by my phone whilst writing this article) as well as the macro-level (e.g. working on one project to completion before moving on to the next) 

If you’re not clear on your top 1-3 priorities, take some time now and ask yourself:

“If I could only achieve one thing this year that would have the biggest positive impact on everything else, what would that be?”

Then figure out what you need to say no to, to allow yourself to focus on that. 

What about your boss?

Whilst I may find it difficult to say no to clients’ requests, as a self-employed coach and consultant, I do have the ability to choose where I focus my time and energy. That’s not always the case when you are employed, with a boss and their demands. 

I’d recommend working with your boss to identify the 1-3 big things that will have the most significant impact this year and gain their support for that to be where you spend your time.

When you have the support of your boss, it becomes much easier to say no to others’ demands on your time. 

How to say no with compassion

When others make those demands, here are some ways to say no with compassion. I’d love to hear yours.

– I’m sorry, I’m not able to fit that in right now. 

– I’m focused on an important project right now, so I won’t be able to help with this. 

– I can’t help right now, but here are some resources that could be useful.

– I’m focussing on spending more time with my family right now, so I won’t be able to make that function.

– I don’t take meetings on Fridays, would Monday work?

As Warren Buffet said: 

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

Remember – if you are saying yes to this, what are you saying no to?

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