Say Yes to What Matters by Learning to Say No

It happened again. You said yes when you really wanted to scream “No!” Maybe you agreed to volunteer at the neighborhood yard sale, and now you will miss your morning run. You got a surprise visit from a neighbor, but instead of finishing that novel as you had planned, you now know every detail of her latest ailment. And why did you share with your mother-in-law that you have Friday off? Now you are committed to helping her garden for the whole day, when what you really wanted to do was to go shopping and catch up on errands with a friend.

All day long we are asked to do things we don’t want to do, to give our time to causes we don’t really care about, and to expend our precious energy on projects that aren’t on our to-do list. How do you say no without hurting people’s feelings? How do you keep your time and energy for yourself, only giving it away for the important stuff? When you reluctantly end up saying yes to someone else, the result is that you are saying no to yourself. If this is a consistent pattern for you, then you should set some solid boundaries. The ultimate goal is to have more time for what you enjoy most and to have more energy to invest in your own priorities. Here are some helpful tips for learning how to say no to the things that are less important to you, and therefore yes to those that matter most.

Identify what you really want to do with your time. What does your ideal weekend or evening look like? Helping other people and being part of the community is a good thing, but you will do that more effectively if you set limits on how much and for whom you volunteer. When you have clarity about your line in the sand, it will become easier to say no to requests that don’t meet your priorities.

This rulebook will be your trusted guide when saying no. Friday night is our family time, so I won’t be able to make it to your dog’s birthday party. Once you have your rules, stick to them.

Be careful about putting yourself in the crosshairs. Decide that you will only answer your phone if you know who is calling. Don’t share your availability with someone who has a history of exploiting your kindness. If you have an idea for improving an organization, don’t mention it until you are ready to take on the project yourself.

Delaying your response to any request is a vitally important habit. Instead of automatically saying yes to helping your cousin move his mulch pile, give yourself some time to ponder what you really want to do with your Saturday morning. A delay gives you a chance to come up with a way to graciously decline the offer if that is what you want to do. Take that time to look at your calendar or check with your family. If you still decide that you want to help out, you will sound genuinely happy when you do say yes.

Sandwich your no between some positives. Start off by complimenting the person who made the request, then politely decline the offer, thank him or her for asking you, wish them luck, and move on to another topic. You always come up with unique activities! I’m busy that day, so I will have to miss the Teach Your Hamster New Tricks workshop. I’m sure your hamster will make us all proud. Thanks for thinking to invite me.

Once you start sharing your reasons, you risk either sounding defensive or talking yourself into a yes. Explaining your situation also encourages people to solve your problem. Oh, you were going to watch the game this afternoon? You can just record it and watch it later, after we move the mulch pile. If you have a solid, inflexible reason to say no, it is kind to share it. Your barbeques are always a blast, thanks for the invitation, but we are going to a wedding that weekend.

Are you anticipating a glorious weekend nap on the couch? Doing nothing is actually a plan, but you don’t need to divulge the specifics. Keep it simple with the unexpected visitor: Oh, hi, Rosy. It’s always nice to see you, thanks for stopping by. I can’t talk right now.

To remain in control, don’t invite her in and say a polite goodbye as you gently close the door.

If you have a really tough no to get through, practice first so that you don’t get tongue-tied or cave. By being kind yet firm, you can let people know that you are saying yes to them, but no to their request. Every time you succeed in saying no, it’s a victorious yes to you!

About the author

Rebecca Reimers Cristol

Rebecca is a Life and Business coach who guides her clients to
find work/life balance, gain clarity and incorporate self-care into
their lives. She is based in Williamsburg and can be found at