Say no without hesitation

A cartoon boat at sea

You are in a boat trying to get to shore. Your boat has a hole in it and you really need to get it fixed. People pass by in other boats. One stops you urgently to ask for help. Their boat has a problem; it’s light doesn’t work and they need you to help them fix it. Their ask seems pretty reasonable, so you say yes; you want to help. The problem is you’re ignoring the hole in your boat. By the time you have reached them, water has filled up and your boat is sinking. The small hole has become a big nightmare. You can’t help anyone.

A water leak

Everything can be urgent, but not everything is important. To stop your metaphorical boat from sinking, say no politely and clearly so there are no misunderstandings. Remember that every time you say yes to someone, you are saying no to someone else. Often they are the most important people; our family, friends and ourselves.

Saying no can be daunting at first. So we need to say no regularly for it to become a part of your everyday vocabulary. Sure this can be scary, especially when you are not in a strong position of authority. Over time, with practice, it becomes easier. You will build a reputation that you only take on tasks that are important and that you can commit to. People stop asking so much.

This is not about not helping others, we should help people when we can. This is about staying healthy in the work and having the confidence to say I am not going to do that, you can.

What about people who we can’t say no to?

If someone has a problem with your no, or are from a position of authority that saying no will be difficult, show them your tasks for the day. Say, if I take on this task I will have to stop doing one of these. Which one are you happy for me not to do? Often people will say their task is no longer important, or will take something off you to focus on what is.

How to know what to say no to?

If you do not feel an immediate yes, your response should always be, let me get back to you. This will give you time to write up the consequences and energy list we discussed earlier. Do not feel compelled to give an answer immediately but do get back to people. Making these types of decisions is like lifting weights in a gym; after time it gets easier and you get stronger.