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Learning to Say “No”

Updated: Mar 3

For most of my life my default response when a new opportunity has been presented to me has been yes. That approach has served me well. Saying yes has allowed me to learn about myself, develop new skills, and meet interesting people. But more recently I’ve found benefit in exercising caution before committing to new opportunities.

Before taking on a new commitment, consider whether you are really excited about it, and if you decide you aren't, then say no. However, being excited isn’t a good enough reason to say yes. Ask yourself, “Why am I excited?” If your answer involves extrinsic motivators like pay, promotions, and recognition, you may find the benefits to be short-lived. Conversely, if you are excited because the new opportunity will lead to positive emotions, engagement, meaning, or healthy relationships, then it’s likely you won’t regret spending time on such commitments.

How you choose to spend your days is how you spend your life. When making the choice about how to spend your days, shifting your view of time from hours and days to months and years can improve your perspective. Let’s consider two examples:

  • You can spend time with people you are not fully committed to today or open yourself to building more meaningful relationships.

  • You can work on a project that might offer short term benefits today or a project that moves you one step closer to meeting one of your long term goals.

Mark Twain may have said it best when he wrote, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do.” The problem many of us face is that our days are packed so full with activities that seem important in the moment. The constant state of busyness that results prevents us from being the people we long to be.

When someone asks how you are doing, how often does your response include the word busy? Thomas Moore, a best-selling author and psychotherapist, writes, “If busyness is an emotional complex, then it's likely that when we are busiest, we are doing least. We can be extremely active without being busy and busy without accomplishing anything.”

Breaking this cycle of busyness isn’t easy. Thanissaro Bhikkhu, American Buddhist monk, provides the following suggestion:

“Look at your life in the same way you’d look through an attic, deciding what you’re going to keep, what you’re going to throw out. You’re moving from a house with a large attic but you’ve got only a small trailer to make the move. Some things have got to get thrown out so that you have space in the trailer for the things that really mean a lot to you.”

Bhikkhu goes on to say that we have to give up certain things to have time for the things that really matter. In other words, learning to say no allows you to say yes when the right opportunity comes along.


Derek Sivers post “If you’re not feeling ‘hell yeah!’ then say no” inspired this post.

Moore, Thomas (1997). The Education of the Heart: Readings and Sources for Care of the Soul, Soul Mates, and The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life. Harper Perennial.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu quote from The Way of Gratitude: A New Spirituality for Today by Galen Guengerich.


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