How to Say No

Are you "super busy?"  It's a pretty common situation.  A lot of us are like hamsters in a wheel, struggling to keep up.  We go for quantity, and miss quality.  We spend time recklessly, even though it's our most precious and non-renewable resource.


cluttered calendar

An essential skill for a happy life

"No" is an answer that sets boundaries and lets us thoughtfully choose what is most important.

But it's not so easy to say when you were raised to be polite.  Many of us are people-pleasers, and even when something isn't right for us or we're already overloaded with tasks, we struggle to say no.  If we do manage to get the word out, we feel guilty.

In part, we can blame our culture, which makes it easy to compare ourselves to others who seem to be accomplishing more than we are.  It's very easy to believe that we just aren't good enough.  So when people ask us for our time, we feel like we have to step up.

We can also blame evolution.  Our ancestors survived because they learned to live together and cooperate.  We're hardwired to preserve our social relationships, which makes saying no difficult, even when it's best.  Saying no can feel like we're rejecting the asker, being unhelpful and uncaring.  But we want to be nice and we want to be liked, so we often take the path of least resistance, even if we wind up regretting it later. 

One way we try to make it easier

We may try to soften the blow by giving an excuse.  Rather than simply saying, "I'm sorry, I won't be able to do that," we offer a reason.  This seems like good manners, but it can set us up for some awkward situations.  For example:

  • You tell someone you can't go to a party because you don't have a babysitter... then they offer to let you bring the kids.
  • You decline someone's invitation to go out for dinner by saying that you already have plans... then they ask you to name a different day that works for you.
  • You apologize for not helping someone with a task, citing a major deadline at work... then they reply that they'd love to have your help once you've finished your current project.

No matter what excuse you offer, people who are determined to get your positive response will come up with some way of invalidating it.  They'll likely wear you down in the end.

With modern technology, we're theoretically available all day, every day.  Without boundaries, we can be overwhelmed, and the quality of all of our activities will suffer.  We're also likely to spend a lot of time feeling anxious and unhappy.

As an aspiring minimalist, you know that clutter in your schedule can be just as harmful as clutter in your home.  It's necessary to refuse many obligations or you'll have no time, energy, or focus left for the things you need and want to do.  Your calendar will be filled with unimportant tasks that add no value to your life.

busy work schedule

9 ways to say NO effectively

1.  Just say it.

Don't beat around the bush or offer excuses.  This only gives the other person an opportunity to become more pleading or insistent.

2.  Take a two-step approach.

If you're new to saying no, give yourself a bit of breathing space.  Say that you need to check your schedule.  Then get back to the person within 24 hours via phone, email, or even text to say, "Thanks for thinking of me.  Unfortunately, I can't.  Hope all goes well for you!"

3.  Be realistic.

Be honest with yourself about your enthusiasm for what you're being asked to do.  If the opportunity really excites you, you'll make time for it (perhaps by dropping something else).  But if you let people down because you're not really committed, they'll stop trusting you.  Better to say no from the beginning.

4.  Be assertive yet courteous.

Thank the person for asking you, but make your position clear.  This is polite but puts you in control of the situation.  You might say, "I appreciate you asking me, but I have too many obligations right now."

5.  Understand the tactics being used.

Some people and organizations use manipulation to get a yes answer, such as a charity that uses the line, "Most people donate $50.  Shall I put you down for the same amount?"  Recognize when social pressure is being applied.

6.  Offer an alternative.

Sometimes you can offer a compromise that satisfies another person's wants while meeting your own preferences.  For example, if a new friend asks you out for a drink, but loud bars and alcohol aren't your thing, suggest coffee or lunch instead.  If a colleague wants your help on a project, perhaps you can introduce him to someone else who would be excited about it.  Or if you would like to help, but know you can't make the time, offer to do something useful that requires a smaller commitment.

7.  Stand firm.

If someone won't accept your no answer, realize that is their problem, not yours.  A person who respects and cares for you will accept your answer.  Don't give in just because you feel uncomfortable.

8.  Ask another question.

This is a good strategy in a work situation.  Let's say your supervisor is asking you to take on several tasks – more than you can really handle.  You might say, "I'm happy to do A, B, and C, but I'm going to need three weeks, rather than two, to do a good job."  Then ask another question which makes it plain that choices must be made:  "How would you like me to prioritize my work?"

9.  Be selfish.

Put your own needs first, not those of the person asking.  If you prioritize her needs over yours, I can tell you from experience that you'll feel resentment and stress.  You'll wind up living your life according to someone else's agenda, rather than your own – a recipe for exhaustion and discontent.

Learning to say no brings freedom.  It lets us use our precious time wisely.  Saying no enables us to say "Yes!" to the things we really care about.

Updated May 2023


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