I’m sure you’ve heard the advice that you should get better as saying no. But it’s easier said than done. And it’s absolutely necessary if you want to curate your time so that you are spending it in service of your own goals and values.
When it comes to time-management, we can either do less, or do what we’re doing more efficiently. A lot of advice out there (my own included) is about ways that we can be more efficient and squeeze as much as we can out of each moment. However, the other side of the coin is the ability to say no to the things that don’t serve us, so that we have the available time and energy to say yes to the things that do.
And to get started, there are really only two questions to ask ourselves with respect to reducing what’s on our plate: 1) what am I going to say yes (or no) to in the future? and 2) what am I doing now that I don’t want to be doing?
So, first, let’s talk saying yes, and saying no, to future obligations. Most of us say yes without thinking about it a lot of the time. We feel pressure to say yes, to be liked, to be helpful, because it seems like a good thing to do or something that we should do. But we’re not always thinking about our time and priorities, and that’s often how we get stretched too thin.
So how do we decide what to say no to, and how do we ensure we don’t say yes unthinkingly, by default?
First, just take a breath and…don’t say yes immediately. Say you’ll need to look at your schedule and get back to them. Then, sleep on it.
Then you want to think to yourself, is this a “hell, yes” situation? If not, say no.
And if it is a “hell, yes” situation, think to yourself “if this were tomorrow, would it still be a “hell yes”?. If not, say no.
Finally, look at your priorities and your schedule. If it’s a “hell, yes” and you would do it in a heartbeat tomorrow, do you have time for this? And if you don’t have time, is it important enough that you’d replace something else you are doing? If not, it’s still a no.
Now, I hear you saying, “But there are some situations (like when my boss assigns me a project) where it’s much more difficult to say no. “ And you’re right. I’m not really talking about those situations here. I’m talking about the things that are not actually obligatory (even though they sometimes feel that way), like that volunteer position you agreed to, or a social engagement on the horizon, etc. All that stuff that seems like a great idea before we think too hard about it, or that sounded like a great idea before the time came.
I also want to talk about guilt. We often say yes because it feels too uncomfortable to say no. We feel guilty about it. We feel selfish. We worry about how other people will react.
And I’m going to say something radical here: It is, in fact, it’s much better for everyone that you say no to something you’ll feel resentful of when it actually comes time to do it! Think about it. It is better to say no now, or bail at the last moment? Is it better to say no now, and feel uncomfortable for an instant, or to dread this obligation for days, weeks or even months? Is it better to say no now, or to take forever to respond to someone, leaving them hanging? So banish the guilt, apply the framework above, and only add new stuff to your life that you are truly excited about.
Next, let’s talk about reducing what’s already on our plate. How do we say no to the stuff that we’re doing already that we’d rather we weren’t?
The first step is to take stock of all your obligations so that you can figure out how to remove those things that you are no longer deriving value from. Ask yourself: “What am I doing right now that I really don’t want to be doing, that I wish I had said no to, or that isn’t working for me anymore?”. Take a minute or two to think about all of your obligations and how they make you feel. What are the things that you dread going to or doing? For example, maybe you signed up to be a room parent in your kid’s class and it’s really more of a time-suck than you thought. Maybe you are on a committee at work that was valuable to you (and others) at one point, but isn’t anymore. Maybe it’s something around the house you just can’t stand doing. Maybe it’s even a person, a relationship that’s dragging you down and not serving you anymore.
Then, you need to think about the actions you can take to remove this obligation from your life. There are really 3 ways to do this:
Extract - You can extract yourself, by discussing the obligation with whoever is in charge on the other end. You want to do this gracefully, and with empathy. If you made a commitment for a particular amount of time, you probably want to keep your commitment and then just not sign up again. For instance, if it’s being a room parent, you’ll probably need to wait until the end of the semester. If it’s a committee at work or a volunteer position, go talk to the person in charge and explain why it doesn’t make sense for you anymore. Create an exit plan together.
Delegate - If you have direct reports at work where it might make sense for them to take over a duty, that can be an option. You can also delegate housework or household tasks to your kids or partner.
Outsource - If your budget allows, perhaps you can find a way to get a housecleaner once a month, or pay for translation services instead of translating a document yourself. Maybe you can even do a swap with a friend; you do the chore they hate, and they’ll do the chore you hate.
Once you’ve brainstormed a few obligations you no longer want in your life, come up with an action plan using one of the strategies above. Get specific so that it will be harder to procrastinate. When will you have the conversation? Or do the research on service providers? Really think about this and be realistic. You want an actionable plan you can commit to so that you can free up time in your life to spend on the stuff you actually want to be doing.
Saying no is hard. Extricating yourself from obligations is hard. But the reward is knowing that you’re spending your most valuable resource, your time, on the activities that support your goals and values. And that’s huge.