The art of saying “no”

If you’re anything like me, you’ve read dozens of books and blogs on time management. All in attempt to find out:

How do you squeeze it all in?

Being a mom or dad, a dedicated employee, and juggling the responsibilities of a household . . . add to this list anything related to self-care, and managing it all seems…impossible. A good friend of mine, the mother of two young children with a busy and demanding job once summed up the feeling perfectly by saying “can’t I just lay in bed all day with a good novel instead?” I nodded my head in agreement at this simple but mutual feeling that sometimes, just the idea of managing your responsibilities can make you want to curl up under a blanket and say, “no thanks.” As we all know, crawling back into bed with a novel, unfortunately, isn’t an option.

So, how do you squeeze it all in?

My simple answer? You don’t……

In all my readings on time management, one piece of advice was truly instrumental in helping me manage my own time. That advice?

“You’re never going to get more hours in a day. The only way to make all of your tasks manageable . . . is to have less of them.”

WHAT??!?! SAY WHAT?!?!?!?!!?

GENIUS!!! Right?!!!?!?!?!

But easier said than done. You probably have a million things on your plate right now, none of which can easily be left undone.

About 6 months before I had my son, I was highly aware of the responsibilities that childcare would bring and how my life would change having a little human to be responsible for. Although nobody can truly prepare you for that life change, I knew I wouldn’t have free time to roam around town, run a bunch of errands, sit on a bunch of committees, take on a new hobby, or hop on an airplane at the flip of a switch. So, I took the advice to have less tasks and started on a journey of weeding out my current responsibilities – saying “no” to commitments that I was not passionate about. I did this both in my personal and in my professional life. It took a few years for me to get the list down to where it currently is, but I can confidently say that my responsibilities seem manageable now. It’s something I must work on daily – I consistently review my responsibilities to determine what can be delegated, reduced, or completely cut out.

Your tasks and commitment to each of them may vary, but here’s a list of tasks and roles I minimized. (It’s important to note that none of these were responsibilities I was craving doing – I didn’t like the act of telling people “No”, but I wasn’t overly invested or passionate about the things I cut out. I think I did them out of feeling a sense of responsibility or obligation – but that feeling was something I put on myself, not put on me by others. There are a few things that remained, but those that remained are the things I care greatly about and would miss if they were gone.)

  1. Professional committee work. I sat on several professional committees (very common in my field). While the commitment for each one of them alone wasn’t much (an hour here and there each month, yearly get togethers, put together a monthly newsletter), when I added them all together, it was a lot of time that really ate at my schedule. In fact, when I did the math, my professional committee work was eating up anywhere from 10 to 20 hours per month! That’s a lot of time! Some of the committees had “end term” dates, and so I let my term run its course and then did not re-apply or re-run for the position. For the positions with no end term date, I gave ample notice (usually 6 months) that I wished to rotate off, and then did everything in my power to help the group identify a replacement. I organized materials and processes so I could give the next person a warm, easy, organized handoff.
  2. Social invitations I wasn’t excited about. I tended to be a “yes” person when it came to social events. I realized that I didn’t always enjoy certain social outings. There are some I absolutely loved, but not all of them. The ones I didn’t enjoy usually revolved around scheduling (the activity beginning late in the evening, when I typically go to bed early), or an event that I just didn’t particularly care for). In these situations, I simply said “no thanks.” I always did so kindly and if the person inviting me was someone I had an ongoing relationship with, I’d arrange another activity (want to get coffee Saturday morning?) that worked for my schedule and that I enjoyed.
  3. Social media. Oh my – I’m probably going to get some eye rolls for this one. I did, in fact shut down ALL my social media accounts. It was hard at first, but man did it free up my time! And you know what? I found that I had more sincere and regular contact with people I truly wished to stay in touch with after I cut ties with social media than when I could simply click a button to see what they were up to. This decision isn’t for everyone, but I bet you spend more time on social media than you’d like (studies have shown that people consistently underestimate the time they spend on social media throughout the day and when they learn the actual data, they are shocked). Completely shutting down all accounts may not be for you, but perhaps you can break up with a few of them to give yourself more space, time, and lower stress (who cares what Jane had for dinner anyway???) (Recently, I did get back on LinkedIn ™ but I treat it as a professional task that fits into my workday and don’t spend any personal time on it).

Very importantly, I say “no” to requests that come my way – much more often than I say “yes.” It isn’t easy – in fact managing life this way relies on your ability to have delayed reinforcers – meaning the reinforcer for saying “no” isn’t going to happen right away – it happens much later, when you have free time, you feel organized, and your stress level is reasonable. Most people have a hard time thinking about those delayed reinforcers and so they respond in the moment with the easiest response that will make the other person happy (by saying “yes!”)

What happens when you say “no?” Will monsters jump out of clouds and shame you for prioritizing your time? Will monkeys shoot down and analyze your calendar to tell you that you do, indeed have the time for that? (SPOILER ALERT – NO!!!!)

I’m a people pleaser, so I dreaded saying “no” but with practice, it’s become tolerable. My fears were quickly laid to rest – nobody every threw anything at me, called me a bad name, or ceased contact. In fact, most people said they wished they had done or could do the same thing! The simple act of saying “no” can be quite freeing and in fact, there are even great things that happen when you say “no.”


  1. Give someone else a chance
  2. Feel empowered
  3. Give yourself time
  4. Reduce your stress level
  5. Put more time and attention into the things you are committed to
  6. Open space to take on things you are truly passionate about
  7. Take better care of yourself
  8. Model assertiveness for your friends, colleagues, and children
  9. Live your life, instead of just going through the motions
  10. Are more passionate about the things that remain

Practice saying no today – perhaps to something as simple as cream in your coffee or to something as complex as serving on a board of directors. Just keep practicing and focusing on the time and energy you’ll have because of the simple act of saying “no.”

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