Just Say No

In the autumn of 2009, a young undergraduate student named me had taken on too many commitments. Way too many. In addition to a full course load, I was working two part time jobs, tutoring, leading a student association, and was (no joke) the Research in Motion “campus ambassador.” Too bad I was driving myself crazy. What was the problem? Well, whenever someone asked me if I was interested in doing something, I’d say “yes.”

Partially because I was interested in doing that thing, and partially because I didn’t want to disappoint them.

Too bad I literally drove myself crazy. By the end of the semester, my partner had to drag me to the university mental health centre because she was afraid I was going to kill myself.

I was afraid, too.

One of the most important things I took away from 16 months of counselling was that it is okay to say no. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today, saying no.

One of the biggest conceits of the modern world is being busy. To many people, being busy is a source of pride. It was for me, too. But that pride is misplaced.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

I’m not here to talk about the zen of accepting yourself for who you are, I’m here to talk about saying no to people who ask you to do something.

Your time and attention are finite resources. If someone asks you to do something, and it will take an hour of your time, then that’s one hour you can’t spend doing something else. Seems obvious, right? But it’s astounding how often we ignore this simple calculus in favour of overcommitting ourselves.

The thing is, I want to do things well. I want to be proud in my work. I don’t want to half-ass anything, I want to whole-ass everything I do.

When you agree to do something, you’re making a commitment, and if you don’t consider the consequences, one of two things will happen:

  • You do a poor job.
  • You give up.

Both of those options suck. And if you’re habitually thoughtless about agreeing to things, you’ll get a reputation for either giving up or doing a poor job.

But if you’re thoughtful about what you agree to do – if you manage your time and are careful about new commitments – then you’ll get a different reputation. You’ll be known as the professional who takes pride in their work. Well done!

Carelessly saying yes is a really bad habit. It’s bad for your reputation, personally and professionally. But that’s not the worst consequence.

Eventually, you will hit a wall that no amount of self-starterishness and willpower can overcome. At that point, nothing in your life will make you happy. Nothing. The tech industry calls this “burnout”, but I prefer the clinical term, “depression”, and depression sucks.

Managing your time is essential if you’re going to avoid burnout: all you need is to be aware of your capacity and existing commitments. Then, when asked to do something, it’s a matter of some simple calculus: do you have the time?

Being aware of your capacity and commitments is a great step one. Step two is evaluating each request, which just takes practice. Step three is saying ‘no’, and it’s not as hard as you think.

Here’s the thing: if someone is asking you to do something, that is a request. They’re asking and they understand that their request may be declined. No one is going to be angry at you for saying no, and if they do get upset, then they’re an asshole and you’ve successfully avoided working with them (good job 👍).

So now you understand that saying no is a) healthy and b) not going to piss anyone off, how do you do it? Here’s my favourite way to decline a request:

I’d love to, but I can’t.

That’s it.

I love this phrase because it’s honest: I would like to do something, but I can’t. It’s not my fault I’m saying no, it’s just a consequence of my existing commitments.

Saying no is harder in-person than in an email or tweet, so practice. Seriously, get in front of a mirror and look your beautiful self in the eyes and say no. Ask a friend for help, role play.

At first, saying no might feel weird and uncomfortable, but with enough practice it becomes natural.

As an undergraduate, I struggled with saying no. I was stressed all the time, my grades suffered, I hated myself.

After years of practice and thoughtfulness, the projects I agree to work on are meaningful, rewarding, and they never feel like obligations. Arguably, saying no is one of my most valuable professional skills.

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