Stop Saying “Yes” When you Really Mean “No”

I’ve said “no” to more conference calls, meetings and lunches since the beginning of 2017 than I care to count. I’ve skipped several events, taken a pass on three speaking engagements and declined two requests to join committees that probably would have been fun but that don’t align with my goals right now. And you know what? The sky didn’t fall.

The conference calls, meetings and committees all happened without me. Those who weren’t at the top of my list for breakfast, lunch or dinner ate anyway.

I wasn’t less productive, but more so. It means the things you say “yes” to have to count and you should walk away with a clear understanding of how your participation really mattered to everyone else in the room and to you.

By saying “no” to some things, I was able to say “yes” to some other stuff. Maybe it was writing a grant application for Family and Children’s Association or talking with a reporter about how the immigration ban might affect Long Island’s families. Maybe it was boosting my triathlon training and starting the morning with a 6 mile run or a solitary hour doing laps in the pool. Maybe it was spending just a few more minutes with my kids as they did their homework or taking a phone call from a desperate parent who is struggling with their child.

I wasn’t on a two-hour conference call, in a poorly run meeting or at a sparsely attended event feeling trapped or resentful anymore. And when I said “yes,” it was more like “hell, yes” rather than, a half-hearted guilt-ridden, “I guess so.”

Here are some tips for taking more control over your own time and declining invitations:

  1. Be polite but firm. “No, thanks” is a complete sentence. Don’t apologize or make up excuses.

  2. Don’t lie or make up a conflict either. You’ll just feel guilty and that’s one of the emotions you’re trying to avoid.

  3. Don’t say “I’ll think about it” or “I’ll get back to you” if you don’t want to do it. This will just prolong the situation and stress you out.

  4. It’s fine to say, “that sounds interesting, but doesn’t fit into my list of priorities right now.”

  5. It’s also ok to say, “my plate is full right now, but I really appreciate you thinking of me.”

As you start practicing this, you’re likely to feel a little guilty and wonder whether you’ll lose friends and colleagues. That will pass as you feel better about your choices, start doing stuff that really matters and take control over your own time.