Myth 4: It’s really hard to say NO

Most people have a hard time saying NO to the many requests for help that come their way. They don’t want to appear rude. Dr. Vanessa Bohns, assistant professor of management sciences at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, says. “One of our most fundamental needs is for social connection and a feeling that we belong. Saying NO feels threatening to our relationships.”

I can relate. I used to have a very difficult time saying NO to requests to take on more work, bigger challenges, larger issues. Many years later, after deep reflection and a lot of self-work, I realized that it came from a feeling of invincibility (big challenges excite me, even today!); from a desire not to feel bored; and a sense that I was “not good enough” – and solving one more “impossible” situation would make me good enough, so how could I say NO? In fact, I compounded the problem by actively seeking out the toughest challenges!

Gradually, I learned that to preserve my health, relationships, sanity and balance, and to be true to my life purpose, I had to change my perspective dramatically.

Thus began the process of defining what I would say YES to. Today, I choose to first say YES to me: time for my health, my relationships, my spirituality, my own growth.

I say YES to these every week by planning time for these in my calendar. Then I think about my life purpose, my 20 year and 3 year goals, and ensure that the rest of my calendar has time blocked off for what I deem to be important. Because I know that this purpose or these goals won’t be achieved without conscious effort.

This review is automatic – and it is also the filter I use when new requests come in, as they invariably do. This filter means it now takes me nano-seconds to say YES or NO to new requests.

Keep in mind that most of us are socialized to say YES – to please others. So learning to say NO requires practice and discipline. But when you can say NO effectively, it leaves your time free to say YES to the things that really matter to you and where you can deliver the most value to the world. And in my case, to those activities that help me fulfill my life purpose. It is better to take on fewer requests and complete them well, than to take on too many with mediocre effort and results. In other words, be all in – or be out.

Most people probably won’t take our NO as badly as we think they will. That’s because of something called a “harshness bias”—our tendency to believe others will judge us more severely than they actually do. “Chances are the consequences of saying NO are much worse in our heads than they would ever be in reality,” Dr. Bohns says.

So consider shifting your perspective to: the more I say NO, the more I can say YES to that which is truly important