Do we need to say No, more often?

 “Focus is saying ‘No’.” – Steve Jobs

Growing up, my least favorite word was no. In fact, I’d be lying if I said the sound of that word doesn’t still make me cringe a bit. If my parents said no to one of my (many) requests, I would simply interpret it as our mutually agreed starting point for negotiation.  “Maybe if I try rephrasing this?” “Maybe if I just ask Dad first and secure his support before I approach Mom?” “Maybe if I highlight the benefits first before I ask?” My 7-year-old brain was clearly destined for a corporate career one day. 

Fast forward to my 30’s- I still take some issue with hearing the word no, but I have an even harder time saying it. What is it about saying no that is so hard for some people?

For some, the inability or hesitance to say no stems from the desire to appear agreeable or flexible. For others, it could be a sense of “FOMO”  – that by saying no to some additional project, they’ll miss out on the opportunity for advancement. Neither reasoning is wrong, and I would argue it’s almost natural.

Saying no takes thought and conviction. Odds are, if someone is asking you to take on some extra work or if you agree with their idea, they are expecting to hear yes. In fact, most often, that’s really all we want to hear. Saying yes is easy, often requiring no further explanation. But for many, saying no means having to back it up. We start spewing the reasons behind our no’s – trying to verbally validate our decisions. Appeasing others is practically hardwired in our brains.

We also assume that people aren’t going to “take no for an answer” because it’s been instilled in us. Before someone even has the chance to ask “why not?” our minds (or, at least mine), have probably already generated a list of reasons to justify our decision, or avoid looking like the bad guy. Going back to the childhood example, how often did we accept that answer? How many times did we ask why, hoping for a change of heart?

In business, as in life, the pressure to say yes is constant. But rather than the peer pressure of friends and family, we encounter pressure from colleagues, bosses, and customers. There is no shortage of demands and requests for our attention and time, but there is a shortage of time. If we said yes to every request, where would we come up with the infinite amount of time required, on top of our normal responsibilities, in addition to our personal lives? Life is always a balance of time and constantly saying yes can easily tip that scale and create undue stress, unfinished projects, and no forward momentum.

We all want to advance, and often we associate opportunities presented as the means of doing so. But maybe all opportunities aren’t necessarily roads to success. Perhaps they’re just roads to new experiences, or even more mundane roads that just need to be traversed because it’s part of the job.  Being able to identify the opportunities that will truly benefit you in the long run, versus those that are going to add avoidable stress is key. Being able to say no when we need to shows conviction and that you value your time and energy.

Sometimes having that one great idea means saying no to many others – even your own. But maybe we should look at it differently. Think of it less as saying no, and more as editing. You’re editing your choices to create more time for the best parts – both professional and personal. As professionals, we often have a lot on our plate. We can’t expect to ask for more if we can’t handle what’s there. Take a look at your leaders. If you think they’re saying yes to everything, or even a large percentage of requests and ideas, you’re mistaken. Just like us, they don’t have the time or resources to take on every request or new idea presented to them. Next time you’re presented with a request or idea, consider whether it’s going to keep you from finishing an already-assigned project or even a key goal for your role. If an opportunity keeps you from meeting those standing objectives or leaves you with no time for personal pursuits, maybe it’s not an opportunity after all.

Do you ever struggle with saying no? How do you say it while still entertaining opportunities and new ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts, unless you don’t have time – in which case – it’s totally okay to say no.

(Also- I’d like to dedicate this article to my mom, for teaching me the power of no)

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