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Saying No.

One of my clients was telling me how they feel overwhelmed because of all the commitments they feel they have been guilted into making. She knew I had wrestled with this lately and wanted to know my solution.

I think she was disappointed to find out my magic bullet was to simply say “No” more.

Here is an exchange where I turned someone down recently …

He was right, if I really HAD to I could have MADE time, but as I said in my response … I didn’t have to and no amount of pleading was going to change that. I had my schedule, I had my priorities, and I passed on the opportunity. If we made time for every request like this we would never get anything of our own done.

We often say “Yes” out of friendship, loyalty, or because we don’t want to pass on this opportunity for fear future ones will not be forthcoming. All good reasons for agreeing.

But all the same, we have to say “No” more if we are going to give our own projects priority.

Too much in my career I have been tending someone else’s garden, only to find my own withering and unloved.

Saying “No” is not rude. In fact it is more polite than agreeing to something you have no chance in your wildest dreams of giving 100% commitment to.

And that is the GOOD opportunities, requests and appeals. It is insanity agreeing to something where you would get used, give you a whole world of pain, and to be discarded afterwards. But we do. All the time.

By saying “No” to the stuff that is wrong for us right now we have more capacity to say “Yes” to the stuff that is right.

Start saying “No” more. It’s the right thing to do.

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  1. Jan Schochet says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this. Today.

    I just blindly felt my way through this in the last 48 hours or so, cancelled a few things I’d overcommitted on and this corroborated my instincts.

    You are so right on here.

    Happy New Year.

    Here’s to a productive one, too!

    • It’s good that you realized you were going to have to cancel – can you imagine the stress of trying to keep all your commitments if you hadn’t?

  2. Chris, I had to laugh when I saw this post. After meeting with my business coach in November and lamenting about all the stuff I get asked to do/promote/participate it, she told me to just say no. Like you, I feel like I’ve been tending other people’s gardens and my own has been neglected. Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m sure there are a lot of people who can relate. My new mantra is “no.” It’s now got to be in total alignment with my business and a win for me as well as the other person for me to say “yes.” No matter how much I like the other person! πŸ™‚

    • The promotion part is something a lot of folks don’t realize until it is too late – sometimes it is easy to contribute but then we have to follow through with the promotion of projects … which adds noise to our stream and takes away an opportunity for us to communicate. Too many times I have promoted someone else only to find my audience fatigued and unwilling to listen πŸ™

      Opportunity costs are real, people! πŸ™‚

  3. Hi Chris, Nice motivating article.

    One must learn to say NO when it’s not important. 4 Months before I learned this and this has completed changed my day schedule.

    I read a post on, he explained the importance to say “NO”.

    Before I use to schedule my day early in morning but due to unexpected friends/requests etc I was not able to stick with schedule but the day i learn’t to say “NO”, I have more time for myself and I increase my business 25% (approx).


  4. Dave Doolin says:

    I tell people like that I have to catch up Project Runway episodes or whatnot.

    It is interesting, though, how much “opportunity” is coming my way these days. Being a developer in Silicon Valley is like being an “opportunity magnet.” I have magical powers. I can knock out iPhone apps, Ruby web applications, all sorts of stuff… “Dude, this is a fantastic opportunity, it won’t take you more than a day or two, I’m sure. We’ll give you equity!”

    As soon as my landlord takes equity, I’m all in.

    • Dave Doolin says:

      Update: I’m actually working with someone on a spec basis right now (won’t go into reasons for this at the moment); here’s how I’m handling it:

      * Writing down everything. At the end, for whatever value of “end,” I’ll have a written consulting report as a deliverable.

      * Time clocking with I know exactly how much time I’m spending on this project.

      * Being firm about boundaries. When asked “What do you bring to the table?” I firmly stated “I bring my attention to your project.”

      We’ll see where it goes…

      • It’s great to be in demand, that means you can pick and choose the opportunities πŸ™‚

        Unfortunately people think being a developer or designer is like having surplus cake – of course you can have a slice. Problem is keep giving slices away and you end up with no cake.

  5. Saying no is tricky and I admire how you handled the situation.

    I had an experience about a month ago where I said yes and wasn’t able to do a great job. Had I had the courage, saying no would definitely have been the right thing to do.

  6. Hear Hear! I love saying no. =) Especially when you can just feel that a client is going to be a terrible fit. Resist the urge and just move on.

  7. The tricky bit is figuring out what to say “No” too. I think this comes down to knowing the answers to 2 questions.
    1)What are my current priorities? (Working on my stuff or getting clients) and
    2) Who are my target markets? (Will doing this get me in front of the people I need to connect with.)
    If the opportunity presented doesn’t give me happy answers to those questions, it’s a “No!”

    Thanks for the boundary reminder.

    • Exactly, the reason I was sure in the example above was because I already had a full schedule and my priorities – one of my priorities being my family. Had I agreed to this request (and the inevitable follow-up requests of promotion etc) I would have stolen time from my own projects or my family. No way.

  8. What’s more interesting about this for me (as a polite Brit) is that the person came back and challenged you on your “thanks but no thanks” quite robustly – maybe there’s a lesson in that for me LOL!!


    • Yeah a few people have commented on that. I got a few all together but this was the safe for work one … I wonder if someone had been teaching a course?

  9. Thanks Chris ! It’s a message I need to hear and practice time and time again…in fact I wrote about my own frustration with it about half a year ago

    I guess the only way to gain confidence in saying no, is to SAY IT!
    Thanks again

  10. Nice analogy with tending someone else’s garden or your own. I also found that helping other people accomplish their goals (even if they’re partly shared with your own) mostly turns out to be a lot work. The result is no more focused time and energy to work on realizing your own goals (or garden).

    What I’m doing for a while now is start with my own goals (by visualizing them). If something comes along I can very quickly check if that opportunity contributes to my goal.

    Sometimes people do not understand your NO (like in the example you showed). I let that be their problem. I guess those people are mostly people who like to chase everything, all the time.

    • I think the best way to build my business is to help other people build theirs PROVIDING everything is in alignment and I know I am not taking from my business or family to do it πŸ™‚ It’s a balance, but yeah if they have a problem with it then it is their problem πŸ˜‰

  11. Your post came as a timely reminder for me…I know saying no is a simple solution, but it is great to see it in black and white. Looking back at 2010 I couldn’t understand why I felt I’d accomplished less than usual even though I’d done twice as much work. My “yes” list far outweighed my “no” list, keeping me super busy but unsatisfied. I’ve written the words “thanks, but no thanks” on a small piece of paper and have posted it at eye level near my drafting table.

    • My parents and friends ask me if I am busy every time they call. Usually I say yes, yes I am. Unfortunately “busy” is not always the same as productive or profitable πŸ˜‰ Saying no helps correct that!

  12. Love it πŸ™‚

    Had to do something similar in the past week or so, with a great friend of mine too. Was unfortunate but my projects were suffering.

    Would love to know who that guy was & the project.

    • I would love to share him with you so you know to look out for it, but I think that would be unkind – he was just a little too enthusiastic with his project which is fair enough.

      The ones that really wind me up are the “you OWE me, we MADE you” type people. I give enough for free and get to choose, I don’t “owe” anyone anything (apart from, you know, mortgage etc, heh)

  13. I don’t know what it is lately that leads people to think that saying ‘no’ to them isn’t acceptable. You definitely did the right thing β€” I probably would have said some not nice things in such a situation. A graceful ‘no’ is tough and something worth practicing.

  14. Brilliant advice Chris as always! I followed the “Yes Man” mentality a couple of years ago which served me well, but I didn’t twig quickly enough about where I should begin saying “no”. Now, just like Andy said, it’s absolutely brilliant – and empowering – to have faith in yourself to the point of knowing what to turn down. Save your effort for the most rewarding and worthwhile jobs, and dodge the time, energy and money pitfalls πŸ™‚
    PS. Happy new year!

  15. My biggest trap is that I love ideas: When someone says to me, what do think about helping me launch this idea?, I am immediately seduced… using tools like GTD has allowed me to be more grounded so that when I’m like “YES! Now where can I pencil that in?” I come back to reality and look at what I’m already committed to.

    A seriously under-promoted idea is that you should ALWAYS leave a little wiggle room on your commitment volume, to allow for the things you really want to do. I feel like such a schlep when I have friends coming to town and I can’t fit them in for three weeks.

    • I look at every opportunity – 99% of the good stuff in my business have been opportunities that came to me – but too much opportunity taking is like too much chocolate … leaves you with more problems than benefits πŸ˜‰

  16. “NO is a complete answer.”

    I’m not sure who to give credit for that quote, but a friend recently said it to me when I was agonizing over an invitation I wanted to refuse, and what kind of “excuse” would make it “okay.”

    Happy New Year, Chris!

  17. I agree, and I think what’s equally important is honesty and clarity over what you agree to or choose to turn down.

    Absolutely agree that saying “No” is both positive for personal affirmation and productive on the basis that scarcity appeals. I would add that this needs to come with more than a measure of control, and awareness of how this reflects on mutual respect and the balance of influence in business relationships too.

    On that last point I have been persuaded in the past to sacrifice a *lot* as I had been afraid to say “no” lest it jeopardise the relationship itself. After some time of basically agreeing to anything at my own cost there was zero mutual respect left, so by the time I did finally stand up for myself and say “No,” the other party ended the relationship pretty much on the spot.

    I see now that it’s about balance, and ensuring that when you do agree to something you might not otherwise want to do, it pretty much always has to come packaged with the (mutual) understanding that you’re giving that time, not having it forced out of you, and that takes a lot of self confidence.

    • Exactly – we need to see our time as being precious, valuable, and just as important as the other person’s. Putting a dollar value on your time helps with this. The other person is not just taking time, you are giving it (or spending it), and you need to know not just the time you are allocating but where you are going to take that time from other things. Knowing your schedule allows you to see what projects might suffer because you do this “quick job” (and all the subsequent follow-up).

  18. Totally totally agree with you. If I sense that something is going to take up more time /energy than it’s worth or I risk getting used and abused then the answer is no. Sadly people don’t like no especially personal friends and biz associates who are used to hearing yes. Had a friend ask me to translate part of her CV from French to English last November, I was working full time, travelling to from work, working on my biz in the evenings /weekends and preparing to leave for the UK for 3 months. She was out of work and is fluently bilingual anyway. I suggested she translate and I check – haven’t heard from her since not even in response to my Christmas wishes. Moral of the story ? – stand firm by what you know is best for you and always always start as you mean to carry on. When you say yes too often to someone they cannot handle hearing no and so the day you say no you risk losing them.

    • Some of the danger signals is when the other person decides ahead of time, and on your behalf, that it is quick and/or easy. That’s for you to decide. Then when you work out the other person is just handing off something they don’t want to do …

  19. I had to say “no” a bunch at the end of December, then pick and choose form the things that I had already said “yes” to that I was actually going to continue. It was a very difficult decision but after my vacation I just knew that I could not possibly keep up that pace and have the life that I want.

    Great thoughts.

  20. Love this post. As someone with a chronic illness, I find that if I’m not consciously saying ‘no’ enough, my body starts to say no for me. But one of my challenges this year is to be more mindful of my need to conserve my energy for my own things.

  21. Chris, this is exactly what people needed to read at this point during the year.

    Many people will want to collaborate more (and I think it’s wise to collaborative and do things with other smart people… but you need to know when you’ve stretched yourself too thin, as we are only able to make so many things great… unless you have unlimited time/ resources that is πŸ™‚

    It’s hard for me because I’m pretty aggressive and want to work on many projects at once because its fun and exciting for me, but unless you have systems in place and a great team, you can’t do it all by yourself (luckily, I have a great biz partner and COO and support team so I’m getting there πŸ˜‰

    This is important though, and if you are saying yes to everyone, then you won’t get much done yourself.

    Thanks Professor, and I’m just glad I got you to say yes last year a few times πŸ˜‰

  22. What comes from me saying β€˜No’ is that my β€˜Yes’ actually has more weight.

    Now when I let a partner or client know I am available to work on a a project – instead of it being expected it is appreciated. So when i’m asked if I can make a change to a site in 2 days, and I say I can make it work – they’re extremely grateful for me taking the time to make sure their β€˜whim’ is accommodated.

    Saying β€˜No’ when I first realize it’s something I shouldn’t commit to frees me to make sure I complete the things I’ve said β€˜yes’ to.

  23. I put it this way – for every thing you say “yes” to, you say “no” to soemthign else. But at some point, it really becomes too much to say yes to “everything”.

    “As much as possible” does not make for productive happy people either, so what’s better in the long run? A few short projects where you gave your all and were happy and satisfied (and rested) at the end?

    Or a dozen or more half-done slapped together project where you wind up grumpy, tired and burnt out?

    I know which one I’m picking because I’ve done the other one. πŸ˜‰

    • Burn out is no fun. I haven’t quite been there but I have circled that drain too many times to want to go back. Better to know we are doing good work rather than over stretch and be no good to anyone!

  24. I can’t believe how timely this was. I cut strings on one project last night, and was thinking about how to get through the current commitments on my drive to work this morning. My resolution this year was to actually achieve at least one of MY OWN projects. This was just what I needed (and it seems like many others too). Thanks Chris.

  25. Thanks so much for throwing this out there. People LOVE to guilt other people into doing things, and it gets exausting very quickly. It is nice to have a reminder that we need to stand firm on our capacities and more importantly know when saying yes is going to result in a less-than-desired outcome, hurt feelings or resentment in the long run.

  26. Chris:

    Someone else passed this post onto me today as a result of me saying that I’ve been practicing saying “no” and that was my “big win” for Dec. 2010….that I had been (and recognized) saying no.

    The family / friends is the one that is the absolute hardest for me.

    My three words for 2011 will “force” me to carefully screen against them and I’m really going to have to get more comfortable with “NO”. They are inter-related and somewhat dependent on each other.

    1. Balance
    2. Boundaries
    3. Balls (to say no)

    Of course….I know I tend to be a work-a-holic so I will have to be careful to not say “NO” to requests that will help me unwind, have fun, etc.

    Happy New Year and I’m glad I was introduced to your blog today.

    • Dave Doolin says:

      You are a hustler Michelle, in the best way.

      • Agreed!

      • Dave:

        Oh goodness, when I read the post I was in a rush and didn’t read the comments that had been posted so I swear I never even saw you here….I’m such a dork.

        Dork or not…how totally awesome that I came to Chris’ blog (via another friend) and you had left your footprint here too.

        As for a hustler…in the best way…I’m trying to decipher that one. Of course, my 13 year old would probably know exactly what it means and could back it up with a YouTube video. (LOL)

  27. I agree that in spite of all the time that we have, we should still have to say no. It is not really a matter of making time for it or not… It’s really to do with our other commitments that we have.

    This post reminds me to keep myself in focus since I am going to start up a new business very soon… I had bad experience of making too much commitments and ended up with failure in everything…

    • Focus is very important, especially when you feel like you are surrounded by opportunity

      • Speaking of the devil!

        While I have just finished my business plan to pursue investors, I received an email from a childhood friend asking me if I am interested to do business with him! Now, I am thinking of saying no to him so that I can focus on mine!

  28. I have to agree wholeheartedly on this one. I just started saying no to a lot things recently because I realized I wasn’t getting the things I really wanted to do done because of all of the additional projects I had agreed to. The first time I said no, I was nervous at first but then it felt exhilarating.

    Plus I find that people think you are more valuable if you aren’t always available… I’ve had a few people say they obviously picked the right person and may even hold on looking for someone else until the time I said I would be available again (which currently is March). πŸ™‚

    • People want to work with people who are in demand. It is a kind of social proof in a way. Now obviously we don’t want to be creating artificial scarcity, but if you are honest people appreciate that.

  29. YA!!

    I actually yelled that out loud when I read the email exchange at the top.

    You may be my hero just for that.

    Well said, great post, well played

  30. Amen! I spent most of 2010 practicing the art of saying No. This effort made a HUGE impact on my productivity for the year and my overall satisfaction with my work life. It also reduced stress and gave me back time to focus on what I really wanted to do.

    There were a couple of occasions when I slipped and agreed to do things out of a sense of obligation (some speaking engagements that didn’t align with my goals), and I regretted it immediately. Now when an opportunity presents itself, I do a gut check and ask: Does this align with my goals? Is this the right audience for me? These questions usually make the answer crystal clear!

  31. Chris,

    In my offline businesses it has been easier to say no or to pass the work to someone else. I find it a little more difficult in the virtual world, mostly because it is has been harder to gauge the time that it requires.

    I agree with Lewis, this is a very timely article for this time of year. I also agree that having your systems in place makes a big difference in what you can and cannot say no too.

    • Having clarity is important anyway but especially when you get busy and start to have to juggle everything. Good systems, good partners, and most of all sticking to your priorities (with enough flexibility to consciously tweak as you go) help save your sanity πŸ™‚

  32. Great post, Chris. My catch-word for this year is OPTIONS. I spent so much time on other people’s stuff last year that this year, I’m going to weigh all the options before I consider my response.

    Thanks for the great reminder that a definate no is as great a thing as a definate yes.


  33. If a client had the cheek to email me back with something like that, calling me out on BS excuses, I’d have them fast-tracked in to my junk pile never to be read ever again.

    As an affiliate marketer who works for himself, saying no is pretty easy. I check my emails about twice per week!

  34. Really? Your face as a favicon.ico? I was looking forward to reading your blog, but that’s a red flag that I shouldn’t come back.

  35. Great post. Saying “No” is something that most people could probably benefit from doing a little more often. I find that over-stretching yourself wastes time on task juggling and stress, which causes your productivity to decrease.

    It’s very motivating to actually achieve all of the things you set out to do on time. I think that’s reason enough use “No” when you need to.

  36. Totally agree. I have been working on boundaries more myself and taking care of my own needs first.

    I do have to add, that response from your friend (???) was rather obnoxious. It was obvious that person didn’t have any consideration for your feelings or prior commitments. I wouldn’t have felt guilty one bit for saying no after reading that response.

  37. First off, that random comment a few posts back about your favicon was hilarious. Made no sense.

    Secondly, this post is spot on. It reminds me of Alan Lakein’s book, How To Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. In it you learn to ask the famous Lakein question which is basically, “what is the best use of my time right now?”

    If you’re in the people business the best use of your time genuinely benefits others. Don’t go spreading yourself thin trying to save the world because then nobody wins.

  38. My wife and I were just arguing about this over this past summer! I own a real estate office in addtion to helping my own clients with their real estate needs.
    When I spend time helping other agents, it was just “stealing from the family” in her words.
    So, we hired a manager to take care of the day-to-day issues and my personal sales have skyrocketed. I still offer them advice (such as the need to market on the web) during the week and help out, its just more as my schedule allows.
    This is great advice.

  39. And I was just about to ask you to do something for me. Hrm…

    So what would be your advice for the askers?

  40. I can’t believe someone would actually fire back with something like that (including all of the exclamation points). As if adding a ton of exclamation points is going to convince you otherwise…

  41. It is so true that saying NO is the most empowering thing we can do to gain clarity and get our priorities done. So many profesionals get bogged down with taking on too many monkeys on their back which take them away from the purpose of their work. I like your post alot. Good to know others are on the same page on this idea.

  42. I agree that saying No is not rude, if we have a valid reason to say No. It is the right thing to do rather than agreeing then not doing what is promised.

  43. Successful business people will tell you that they are ruthless in their business dealings.

    There are worse things than saying no.