Just Say No

“Just say no.”  You may be familiar with these words from former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug campaign during the 1980s.  However, are you aware that there is a threat that you may not be saying “no” to that could potentially be having equally detrimental effects on your long term success and peace of mind?

What is this threat?  Over-commitment, brought about from the inability to say “no” to requests from organizations, individuals, or even your job or business.

Ask yourself: when was the last time you said “no” to a request to join a committee or board position?  Or the last time that you said “no” to a request from a friend or colleague to help them with a task?  Or even the last time you said “no” to a request to simply “hang out” with friends even though you have more important matters that need addressing at that time?

Now please don’t misunderstand: you (like I) probably believe that we have a responsibility to give back to our communities, organizations, and friends that we care about, and therefore want to volunteer and offer our time and services to aid those causes.  In that desire alone, there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “yes.”  But what happens when we say “yes” to more things than we can handle?  The answer is that you begin to say “no” to yourself.  When you are unable to say “no”, you are allowing your already limited and valuable time and energy be used on other people’s priorities, neglecting your own which is a serious concern.

Part of the problem herein is that saying “yes” can easily lead to more “yes”.  Depending upon what industry you work in, you may be familiar with the term “scope creep,” or the continuous growth and expansion of a project’s scope.  In regards to an inability to say “no”, saying “yes” to one request or commitment can soon result in additional work requests.  When the committee you said “yes” to succeeds, you may be approached with requests to participate in more committees or opportunities.  If you aren’t prepared to say “no” as more and more requests come to you, you will soon find yourself buried in a never-ending list of responsibilities.

Arguably, saying “no” is a much more important skill than the ability to say “yes.”  As the co-founder of OnBoardly Rene Warren acknowledged, “It took me years to finally start saying “no” to things that would take me away from what really needed my attention. Time is the most valuable thing you have. Make sure you invest it wisely.”  Furthermore, as Associate Professional Vanessa Patrick from the University of Houston states, “The ability to communicate “no” really reflects that you are in the driver’s seat of your life.”  Similarly, as mentioned in Success Magazine, having the ability to say “no” allows you to establish firm boundaries and maintain control of your own schedule and priorities.  It also demonstrates that you have the self-confidence to stand up for your own desires.

So how do you learn to say “no”?  Start by identifying what’s important to you.  If you know what your values, interests, and desires are, then you already know where you do and don’t want to spend your time at.  That way, when you receive a request to help with or work on something that does not further your own personal priorities, you will already know that your answer needs to be “no”.  You will also be able to explain why you are saying “no”, which will not only give you confidence in doing so, but will further explain to the person making the request why you must turn it down.  Understanding your own values and priorities will also empower you to being to resign from boards, committees, and organizations that are not adding value to yourself.

Keep in mind when saying “no” that you are saying as such not to the person making the request, but rather only to the request.  “No” is not personal, so don’t make it be.  Furthermore, practice saying “no” and your reasons in advance, if possible.  When you already know and are prepared to say both “no” and the reason for such, you will come across as more confident.

On an interesting note, saying “no” can also apply to how employees or business owners in certain fields may want to consider reacting to their clients.  As author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris (author of The Four Hour Workweek) has argued, only twenty percent of a business’ customers generate your “real profit”, while the other eighty percent create the bulk of your headaches and problems.  This is not to suggest that you should neglect or otherwise mistreat your clients, but do give some thought as to how much time and energy each of your clients costs you.  If the costs outweighs the reward, or if the energy commitment is keeping you from the work that truly matters, then it may be time to say “no”.

Use the comments below to share how you will start to use the word “no” to take back control of your life and priorities.


Jeremiah Clark, M.A., is a healthcare IT consultant with six Epic Systems certifications.  He is also the co-owner of Appalachian Digital, a website development agency.  You can contact Jeremiah at JeremiahSethClark@Outlook.com or connect with him on LinkedIn at Jeremiah Clark.