What “Learning to Say No” Really Means

April 26, 2014

We often hear about the value of saying “no.” It’s a popular productivity hack; learning to say no is one of the best ways to make time for your priorities.

But here’s something productivity mavens often fail to emphasize: for this to work, you have to say “no” to things you actually WANT to do. (Click to tweet this idea.)

Image: Saying no

This sounds simple, but it hit me as a sort of epiphany in the first quarter of this year. I’ve never been particularly good at passing on opportunities, and like many entrepreneurs, I suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome, feeling the urge to execute far more ideas than I have time for.

This is precisely why I have several big things going on at once: the client arm of my business, the product side, The Write Life, and other projects that have fallen to the back burner like my travel memoir. One of the perks of working for yourself is you can choose how you spend your time (so long as you’re making money), and I enjoy having my hands in several buckets. This variety allows me to experiment and learn, which keeps me loving this job I’ve created.

But I’m also keenly aware — more so as each day goes by — that working on several projects at once means I’m not reaching my full potential for any of them. We all have limited time and energy, and each time I turn my focus from one component of the business to another, it means leaving another piece behind. It doesn’t mean neglecting parts of the business, it simply means not growing them.

In March, for example, I focused much of my own personal energy and the energy of my team on The Writer’s Bundle, a product sold through The Write Life. It was a three-day sale, but it took many more days to get it off the ground smoothly. Once we’d wrapped it up, I shifted my focus to client work, onboarding a new client and strategizing a content shift for another. Next, I’m planning to work on a new ebook for AlexisGrant.com, a guide to the financial side of running your own business, co-authored with my accountant dad. This guide has been in the works for more than a year, but I haven’t finished it because… you guessed it, I’ve had too many other things on my plate.

If I were really smart, I would choose one of these projects and direct all my energy there. I would grow the client business into a sellable company or focus only on creating high-margin digital products. In the long run, that would likely both increase my income and decrease my stress. And I probably will make that choice in the next few years.

For now though, I enjoy the variety and the challenge, and I’m not willing to give up any of this work-that-doesn’t-feel-like-work. That’s why I’ve started saying “no” to most other things.

The choice of busy, and the art of prioritizing

Everyone is busy these days, multi-tasking, overwhelmed even.

But while busy often means stress, I remind myself regularly that being busy is a choice. (Click to tweet this.) I’m choosing to work on all these projects, and I’m choosing to organize a wedding and a move and several other personal milestones this year. While you can’t control everything that comes your way, most of our obligations are actually choices.

So over the last month or two, I’ve started saying “no” to opportunities that don’t fall into my main buckets. I used to think “saying no” meant passing on projects that weren’t quite right or didn’t help me reach my goals. That’s true, but for many of us, it also means saying “no” to opportunities that are a perfect fit. It means turning down things we actually want to do. It means giving something up.

This isn’t easy. It can result in disappointing professional contacts or readers or friends who you truly want to help. It can mean declining to work with an appealing client. It requires passing on interview opportunities, coffee with interesting people, and other networking and brand-building activities that do help you reach your long-term goals.

This is when “saying no” truly becomes meaningful: when you turn down opportunities you want. Re-reading this post, I’m realizing that if I were serious about implementing my own advice, I’d consolidate my own projects now rather than later. But for the moment, the next best thing is to push myself to apply this to all the extraneous tasks that come my way, usually via my flooded email inbox. All of the requests and inquiries and ideas that hit me on a daily basis are great opportunities, but I simply can’t do everything, no matter how much I want to.

Joanna Penn wrote a great post recently about refocusing her workload, and that’s what I consider this to be, too. A renewed commitment to my priorities, and permission to ignore everything else. That might sound harsh, but in our way-too-busy-and-connected world, it’s also necessary, and perhaps the only way to slow down and enjoy this life that’s in front of us.

If you feel busy and overwhelmed, I’d love to hear in the comments how you deal with it. Do you push yourself to say “no” to opportunities?

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    16 Replies to “What “Learning to Say No” Really Means”

    • I’m kind of amazed to find this email from you in my Inbox just now. The timing of your message could not have been better! Why? Because I just spent the last 30 minutes crafting a message explaining why I needed to pull out from a small networking group I was involved with. While on the one hand I was enjoying the people I was getting to know, I came to realize that the potential return on my “investment” of time was not quite what I was imagining originally. I had to figure out a way to say “thanks but no thanks” and not burn any bridges. So while I’m feeling a little bummed at the moment, I realize that this is an important “no” – something I’ve never been all that good at saying. So thanks for the timely message 🙂

    • Betsy says:

      Thanks so much for this! I’ve heard the “you should say no” advice a million times, but it never seems to help me because it’s rare that I WANT to say no. But saying no to something you actually want to say yes to – that’s a new one and reframing it like this I think will help me follow your advice. Even if it’s a project or client that I’m excited about, I need to think hard about each opportunity and decided if it is really the right thing for me in service of my goals.

    • This is so important. I used to suffer from “Yes” syndrome because I was afraid of disappointing people, and as a result gained a reputation as someone who would always say yes. Then MORE people would ask for my time and help, free of charge of course.

      I’m all for being helpful, but it occurred to me that saying yes to everyone else means saying no to myself, no to reaching milestones and finishing personal projects, no to finishing writing my books. Once this really hit home for me, I realized I needed to be more afraid of disappointing myself than I was of disappointing others.

      I still help when I can, but I feel free these days to say no to things that will take my time without giving anything back.

    • Heather says:

      It’s so hard to say no, but I love the idea of reframing, as Betsy said, to consider it a choice to focus on your priorities. Hopefully it makes it easier to give myself permission to pass on opportunities that don’t quite fit.

    • Allison says:

      I haven’t been able to declare a total “no,” but I have been getting better at “not now.” If the projects are still interesting at a future date when I can handle them, cool. If not, oh well.

      • Alexis Grant says:

        This is good! “Not now” works too… unless you really want to say “no” and are just saying “not now” so you don’t disappoint someone… in which case you’re likely to be back in the same situation a few months down the road.

    • Completely agree with your angle here Alexis, saying no when it’s something you really want to do is when you know you have a focused mind! Great article.

    • I totally empathize with your situation (and hear the unfinished manuscripts on my computer begging to be edited if I could live in a cave for a couple years!). Excited for your financial guide to come out. Where are you moving to?

    • Monnette says:

      I try to remember Stephen Covey’s advice to “put first things first.” It also means I am confronted with choosing what I truly value most.

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