“Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.” –Josh Billings
Learning to say ‘no’ is one of the most valuable lessons to protect your time, your energy, and to ensure you are working towards your definition of success.
As someone who works in the charitable sector, the idea of generosity burnout is a constant reality. There is a relentless demand for my time, energy and resources. While I want to help, I am useless to the charity, the people it serves, my business and my family if I am burnt out.
I am not saying ‘do not help out.’ I am saying find a way to help out without depleting your time and energy.
Your first step to ensure you engage with what you value most, do not deplete your resources, or get wrapped up in something that takes you off track is creating a set of rules for yourself. For example:
- I will not book anything on Sunday as it is the day I spend with my family;
- I will only take one inquiry for a ‘coffee meeting’ per week;
- I will only travel for work (when in my control) 25 days a year.
Setting boundaries, such as these, can make decisions about requests for your time and energy easier.
Recently, I was asked to complete a task for an organization for which I volunteer. Not only was the timeline was impossible, in the few hours I was given to complete the task, I also had important business, family and health commitments to fulfill (i.e. I wanted to get sleep that night).
This is where I had a choice — I basically got to choose my problem. I either had to go through an awkward conversation and say no, or I had to sacrifice time with my son or forfeit income or sleep. I chose the awkward conversation.
Although conversations such as these can be challenging, focusing on the tradeoff can make them easier. Saying ‘no’ to one thing, allows you to fulfill your ‘yes’ commitments to the best of your ability. Essentially you are clearing a path for you to walk towards your goals. Most people respect and admire people who have the courage to say no and have confident in their priorities.
Here are Four Effective Ways I Use to Say No:
(I find these work best via email because I have time to think about my response. When asked in person to do something I may not or should not commit too, I always say “Let me check my schedule and I will get back to you.” This gives me time to determine the right response for me, and if the response is no, the best way to say no.)
- Share Your Priorities
“Thank you so much for the invite, but that day I will be attending my son’s school play — something I cannot miss.” Or “I will not be able to attend your painting workshop, as I have yoga every Monday at that time.” The amount of details are up to you.
- Tell the Truth — All of It
“I would love to help but my son is sick, and has been for almost a week. I am currently trying to catch up on commitments I have had to put off and deadlines I have missed.” Or “I love your charity and what you do! Unfortunately, I will not be able to help with the event this year as I maxed out my volunteer commitments. Please consider me for next year.”
- Deflect — No, But Here is Someone Who Can
“I can’t do it, but that is in line with other projects Jon has worked on. I have cc’ed him on this email so you guys can start the discussion.”
- Reduce — No, But Here is What I Can Do
“We cannot participate in your event this year, but we can promote it on social media and in our newsletter.” This allows you to limit or set boundaries around your commitment.
Dr. Christine Carter, a senior fellow at GreaterGood, offers these suggestions1:
Thank You, But No — “Thank you so much for your kind words and support of our organization! I’m sorry, I cannot find anyone available to help you at this time.”
Hard No — “Thanks, I’ll have to pass.” Then walk away.
It’s Someone Else’s Decision — “I promised my husband (therapist, supervisor, etc.) I wouldn’t take on any more commitments right now. I’m working on creating more balance in my life.”
I’m Booked or Full Schedule — “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m already booked that day.” Or “I appreciate you thinking of me, but on that day my schedule is full.”
Lastly, Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism2, a textbook that ensures you are creating the discipline to do what is important, offers the following techniques:
Delayed no — “Currently I am consumed with writing my book, could you send a request again in the summer?”
Re prioritize — “Yes, I can help with this project, but what should I now move down my priority list?” Useful when speaking to a manager.
Use email auto responders — Create an away message that describes your priorities or the reality of your situation. For example: “Thank you for your email. Due to the high volume of emails I receive daily, I thank you for your patience in my returning your message. For urgent inquiries please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Regardless of which techniques work best for you, the ability to effectively say no and maintain relationships will allow you to take control over your life – and not give that power to someone else. You will be able to do less, do what is essential and do it better.
Inspirational leaders often say that helping others is a direct way to happiness. This can be true, but not at the detriment of yourself. The road to burnout is often paved with good intentions3. I know this first hand.
I am not saying don’t give, just ask yourself these two questions before you do:
- Do I have the resources to give? Be it time, energy, or finances. If not, you are depleting an asset you do not have. If yes, continue to question two.
- Will it add to my life? There can be several rewards for giving. Giving can feel good; it can be an investment into a cause you believe in and want to move forward; it can also be something to develop relationships, acquire something in return or pay back to a community or individual. Giving resources to causes you believe in, or to people you believe in, can have an incredibly positive effect on your life. If saying ‘yes’ adds to your life, then by all means — give.
Regret nothing. Once the decision is made, don’t look back. Only focus on why this was the right choice for you and continue forward. Doubt and the ability to reverse a decision can lead to unhappiness4, but even more importantly, takes up time and energy that you could be investing to what matters most.
Want to learn more? ConsciousWorks offers interactive workshops on productivity based on behavioural change science that include creating habits to increase your energy, avoid burnout, and get more done so that you can spend more time doing what you love with who you love.
- Christine Carter, “21 ways to “Give Good No”” GreaterGood, November 12, 2014, accessed March 2, 2017, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/21_ways_to_give_good_no
- Greg McKeown, Essentialism (New York: Penguin, 2014), 137-143.
- Adam Grant & Reb Rebele, “Beat Generosity Burnout” Harvard Business Review, Jan 23-27, accessed March 2, 2017.
- Shiner, R. (2015). Maximizers, satisficers, and their satisfaction with an preferences for reversible versus irreversible decisions. Social Psychology and Personality Science, 6(8) 896-903.