“Success has less to do with what we can get ourselves to do and more to do with keeping ourselves from doing what we shouldn’t.”
Tammy Vigue is a business and life coach who, until seven years ago, “was completely incapable of saying no.” As an executive in the financial industry, she found herself so overwhelmed that she eventually had to see a doctor, complaining that she had trouble concentrating and couldn’t sleep.
“You need to take a stress leave,” the doctor said.
“I can’t,” she responded. “I’m too busy.”
This situation is one that a lot of us can relate to, and several factors compel us to say yes to opportunities even though they might not be in our best interest. We worry that if we say no that we’ll create conflict, that the job won’t be done as well or at all without us, or that we won’t get any more offers. We have superhero syndrome, and we believe we can take it all on, but “when we can’t say no,” said Vigue, “our bodies will do it for us.” She pointed to Gabor Maté’s international bestseller When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, which shows the links between stress and diseases such as multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, Crohn’s disease, and osteoporosis. Saying no, said Vigue, is a critical skill—one that takes practice. If we don’t, we face burnout, and our work could end up suffering. When we overachieve, others around us don’t do as much, which makes us resentful and angry. The first step to quelling the compulsion to say yes to everything is to recognize the inner “no.”
Identify your values
Your core values define who you are. As yourself, “When do I feel really alive?” Conversely, ask “What drives me crazy?” Underlying the answers to both questions are your values.
Identify your top five values, which can become your compass when deciding whether to take on an opportunity. Does it align with your values? If not, say no.
Identify your priorities
Ask yourself where you’re dissatisfied, and you’ll figure out where things are out of balance in your life. Set three goals for your year (if you have more than that, nothing is a priority), and ask yourself whether the opportunity helps you achieve those goals.
Listen to your body
For overachievers, being presented with an opportunity triggers a stress response that we’ll do almost anything to get rid of—such as agreeing to something we don’t actually want to do. Learn to manage that response with the ABCs:
- A: awareness—recognize that the stress response is happening
- B: breathing—breathe deeply from the diaphragm, which helps trigger a relaxation response
- C: choice—consciously decide what your response should be (and it may be a yes); give yourself some space away from your knee-jerk answer. “Get comfortable with silence,” added one of the attendees. “That awkward silence is not your job to fill.”
When you’re presented with an opportunity, try this decision model:
- Is it aligned with my values?
- Is it aligned with my priorities?
- Do I have the time, energy, and resources?
If the answer to all three is yes, then your response can be yes. If the answer to any one of them is no, you might want to consider declining the opportunity.
Further ask yourself, “By saying yes to this, what am I saying no to?” Also ask yourself, “By saying no to this, what am I saying yes to?”
Peter Levesque of the Institute for Knowledge Mobilization said that he explicitly breaks down the year into available days: 365 days minus weekends, statutory holidays, and 10 sick days, leaving 240 days in the year. He then further breaks that down into months, then weeks, to get a realistic sense of how much time he has available—a literal time budget.
How do you say no? Just do it. “There’s nothing plainer than ‘no.’” said Vigue. No need for explanations, qualifications, or apologies. People will respect you when you say no and mean it. You could also buy yourself some time: tell them you’ll think about it and get back to them. Another strategy is the “no sandwich”: begin and end by acknowledging the positive aspects of the opportunity, but firmly say no in the middle.
If you’re a team leader, be cognizant that your team members may also have their own values and priorities, not to mention budgets for time, energy, and resources. Set group goals and let everyone know how they are accountable to those goals. If you’re taking on too much as a leader, ask yourself if it’s an issue of control. Figure out what you can automate, delegate, or delete.
Saying no is going to feel very uncomfortable at first, said Vigue. But once you get some practice, it will help you regain some balance in your life.