The Power of “No”

How difficult do you find it to say “No”? I know I do. Sometimes it’s easier to say yes to make people happy. We agree not because we want to do whatever has been asked of us, but because we don’t want to seem rude or unhelpful. Collaborating with others is an important element in life. And – we may need their help in the future. The thought of straining the relationship outweighs the commitment of our time and energy.

It’s a difficult trade-off between yes and no. We overcommit to things that don’t improve our lives because we dare not say “no”.

The difference between Yes and No

These two words get used in comparison to each other so often that it feels that they carry equal weight in conversation. In reality, they are not just opposite in meaning, but of entirely different magnitudes in commitment.

When you say No, you are saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option. Or to make it clearer, as economist Tim Harford put it: “Every time we say yes to a request, we are also saying no to anything else we might accomplish with the time.” Which means that when you say Yes to something, you’ve already decided how that future block of time will be spent.

Simply put: saying no saves you time in the future. Saying yes costs you time in the future. No is a decision. Yes is a responsibility.

The Role of No

You may think that saying no is a luxury only a few can afford. And it is true that turning down opportunities is easier when you have a safety net behind you. But saying no is not just a privilege reserved for those who are successful. It is a strategy. And an important skill to develop at any stage of your career because it retains the most important asset in life: your time.

Steve Jobs put it best when he said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

There is an important lesson to learn here. Saying no doesn’t mean that you’ll never do anything interesting, or innovative or spontaneous. It just means that your Yesses are focused. Knock down the distractions and then the yesses become opportunities to potentially move you in the right direction.

flowers in market
Upgrade your No’s

Over time, your strategy changes. You still need to say no to distractions but you also need to learn to say no to opportunities that were good uses of your time, so you can make space for great uses of your time. It doesn’t mean never saying yes. It means you default to saying no and save yes for when it really makes sense. Brent Beshore – an investor – said: “Saying no is so powerful because it preserves the opportunity to say yes.”

So how do you choose? One way to do it is the Derek Sivers method of “Hell Yeah or No” – if you get asked to do something and your first reaction is “Hell Yeah!”, then do it. If it doesn’t excite you or if you feel overwhelmed by the request, say no.

Learning to say no graciously takes time. We always feel we have to justify our choices. And when we justify our choices, we are handing over power to the other person to disagree, or work around it or try to convince us to do their bidding.

It’s taken me years to learn to say no. It has taken a lot of tears and soul-searching and sessions with a coach to learn that I have a right to my own time, and to say no to things that won’t improve my life, or my art, or that do not add to my goals. No to distractions to be able to be productive and creative.

Granted, we all have responsibilities and obligations. But I’m not talking about those which we cannot escape. I’m talking about the choices we make about how we spend our time. As an artist, one who needs to create to feel whole, No has become one more tool in my arsenal. One word I wield carefully and gracefully. But one word I do use even if I am not fully comfortable using it sometimes. The more you use it, the easier it rolls off your tongue. And the better you feel about the choices you are making. Saying no can be easily changed to yes – if need be. The reverse is not as simple. As women, mothers, heads of families, and caregivers, we feel selfish when we say no to something to do what we want to do instead. But because of all those hats we wear saying no has become more important than ever.

Remember: there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

I am off now to spend some time in the studio, having said no today to a few things I decided I did not need to do today. Or had the energy to do. They will get done – when the time is right. The yes is coming. But today, the choice was no.

Thanks for reading. Until I write again, keep creating.


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  1. My mantra this year has been “She believed that she could, but she needed a break…so she said “no”. I do not always succeed and I’ve given up some things that I was interested in, but “no” is important.

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