The delicate art of saying no

Are your days shrinking?  Until the weeks, months and years seemingly fly by and you can’t believe it’s Christmas already?  Didn’t we just do that?

Is your schedule so full you sometimes wonder how anything gets done because, ironically, there’s just so much to do?

Do you sometimes lie awake at night, roused by a restless mind recapping what you did yesterday and cataloguing what needs to be done tomorrow?

Our world has shifted from orderly and measured – sensible, in my vernacular – to a 24/7 scramble to complete an ever expanding to-do list.

We have too many places to go, too many things to accomplish, and, in the process, nothing ever gets done particularly well.   The only remedy is to learn the delicate art of saying no. 

Most of us aim to please, and learning to say no can be a painful process.

We have said yes so often, to so many requests for our time and attention, that it becomes almost reflexive.

“Of course, I’d love to ….  It’s no trouble at all.”

Except that it is troublesome.  As soon as the word “love” escapes your lips, you’re hating yourself for saying it.

We are our own worst enemies in this regard.  As hard as this may be to imagine, we pile on ourselves by continually saying “yes.”  Or by not saying “no” enough.

It’s also easy to feel as though we’re letting our family, friends, and colleagues down if we say no to them.  Ever.

It simply isn’t so.

Most understand that you can’t do everything, even if you and I have a hard time wrapping our head around our limitations, temporal or otherwise.

Then there’s the matter of our responsibility to get our own work done, and that takes priority over others delegating their work to you.

Creative types run into this bind a lot.

Painters, musicians, writers, photographers, and everyone else practicing their art seem to have so much time and do so little.  (Amen to that, I hear Pam whispering in the background.)

But all that down time is critical.  Either they’re thinking about their craft – composing, illustrating, dancing – or they’re using the time to refresh their mental and creative juices.  Both are critical to their success.

But let’s face it, it’s not just the artist who needs to think creatively.  Whether you are a business person, pursuing a trade, or a stay at home mom or dad, your work and responsibilities benefit from your creativity.  And that requires a good amount of mental space.

The only way to get it is by saying no.

You can take my approach and just come out with it before the question is even completed: “No!”  Or, if that doesn’t work, you can follow up with the ever popular, “Hell no!”

Of course, you may lose friends if you adopt this technique.

Perhaps a better approach would be to feign flattery at being asked, followed by a polite refusal of the request.

Evelyn Waugh, the British author of Brideshead Revisited, had cards printed so that he could more expeditiously say no:

Mr. Evelyn Waugh greatly regrets that he cannot do what you so kindly suggest.

Back in the old days when I was doing honest work for a living managing retailers and restaurants, I was continually approached for donations to various causes.  The thinking, rightfully so, was that if you profit from the community’s patronage, then it makes sense that you give back to the community.

There were so many requests that it quickly became apparent that we would go broke if we said yes every time.

So the approach I adopted was to very consciously and purposefully choose two local charities to support, and support only those two.

Thereafter the standard response to all requests was to say, “There are many worthwhile charities, yours included, but we have made a corporate decision to limit our support to A and B.”

Invariably the asker understood, thanked us for our support of the named charities, and thanked us again for our honesty.

It was that last part that always surprised me.  Evidently, they were so used to being given the run around they appreciated our expression of regret and the fact that we came right out and told the truth.

Telling the truth is a good thing.  Including to yourself.

It’s a fallacy to think that we can do everything that comes before us.  Greg McKeown goes so far as to suggest we say no to everything that isn’t essential to those things that really matter in our lives.  He says that eliminates almost 90% that comes across our path.

Somewhere along that continuum between yes to everything and no to everything you will find your happy medium.

Saying no is both an art and a discipline.  And we all could benefit from a little more practice.


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