An illustration of a man taking notes, with a flow chart of “Things to Say ‘No’ to” superimposed on top of the man.
An illustration of a man taking notes, with a flow chart of “Things to Say ‘No’ to” superimposed on top of the man.
Illustrations: Danny Forest. Click for interactive version.

AAntoine de Saint-Exupéry, the aviator and author of The Little Prince, said: “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

I’d say the same is true of happiness. I’m a happy man not only for the things I do, but also for the things I don’t do. In 2019, I set out to say “no” more frequently so I could focus my time on the things that mattered to me and the people I care for. It was the happiest year of my life so far.

I’ve created a list of what you can say “no” to, and how to do it. This guide is comprehensive, and not everything will apply to you. Because of that, I’m including a table of contents so you can jump to the things that may be relevant to your life. Read them, and start taking your life back into your hands.

*See Appendix A at the bottom for visual representations.

Table of Contents

*Feel free to highlight those you agree with or those you want to work on.

Personality
1. Procrastination
2. Negative self-talk
3. Perfection
4. Excuses
5. Comparing to others
Health
6. The snooze button
7. Partying every night
8. Stimulants before bed
9. Food with no quality nutrients
Productivity
10. Reading things you don’t enjoy
11. Completing useless things
12. Tap-on-the-shoulder interruptions
13. Responding to messages ad-hoc
14. Doing things you can delegate
15. Overly long meetings
Relationships
16. Takers
17. Social media
18. Listening to complaints about others
19. Naysayers
Work-life balance
20. Bad routines
21. Bad clients
22. Spending your work hours doing personal stuff
23. Doing work stuff at home
24. A bad business partner
Environment
25. Clutter
26. Toxic people
27. Spending most of your time with the wrong people
28. Poor sleeping conditions
Other
29. Waiting needlessly
30. Comparing apples to oranges
31. Your phone
Appendix A. Visual Representations

Personality

Source

Say no to…

1. Procrastination

Stop thinking, and start doing.

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”
— Marcus Aurelius

How to say no to procrastination:

  • Find yourself an accountability partner.
  • Find the necessity in the things you set out to do.
  • Find enjoyment in the things you do.
  • Find your “why.”

Additional resources:

2. Negative self-talk

Be positive. Don’t seek loathing, seek improvement.

“Just remember; someone loves everything you hate about yourself.”
— Frank Ocean

How to say no to negative self-talk:

  • Replace “Sorry” with “Thank you for… ”
  • Build your awareness by looking for specific cognitive distortions in other people’s speech.
  • Be attentive to the way you talk to yourself (especially your tone).
  • Observe and notice your feelings; don’t judge them.
  • Be intentional, not habitual, with your self-criticism.

Special thanks to Nick Wignall for some of the tips above.

Additional resources:

Book recommendations from Nerdy Creator.

3. Perfection

Don’t waste time on perfection. Good enough is good enough.

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.”
— Winston Churchill

How to say no to perfection:

  • Create a habit of releasing/publishing your work every day, whether you do it publicly or not.
  • Set a timer, and don’t let yourself touch what you’re working on after the time runs out.
  • Make your deadlines tighter.
  • Share your work with others before you consider it “done.”

Additional resources:

Book recommendations from Nerdy Creator.

4. Excuses

Ask why three times, and you’ll land on the real reason.

“Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
— George Washington Carver

How to say no to excuses:

Additional resources:

5. Comparing to others

Focus on yourself instead of your competitors.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”
— Theodore Roosevelt

How to say no to comparison:

  • Build your own self-awareness.
  • Journal.
  • Self-reflect.
  • Think of your old self as another person. Compete with him/her.
  • Track your personal wins.

Additional resources:

Health

Photo by Louis Hansel @shotsoflouis on Unsplash

Say no to…

6. The snooze button

Focus on achieving your goals, set tight deadlines, and you won’t ever think about snoozing anymore.

“You snooze, you lose.”
— Smart people

How to say no to the snooze button:

  • Get an alarm clock that doesn’t have a snooze button.
  • Put your alarm further away so you won’t want to go back and forth.
  • Set your alarm to a time where waking up is necessary.
  • Schedule many things during your day so that if you push one activity back, everything cascades (and you don’t want that).

Additional resources:

7. Partying every night

Enjoy a party, but don’t forget about your goals and your need for rest.

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”
— Oscar Wilde

How to say no to partying every night:

  • Change your environment. Don’t hang out with people who neglect their goals and responsibilities.
  • Have a clear sense of “why.”
  • Have stricter productivity goals.
  • Find other hobbies.
  • Try a dry month.

Additional resources:

8. Stimulants before bedtime

Don’t let yourself get in the way of a good night’s sleep.

“Sleep is the best meditation.”
— Dalai Lama

How to say no to stimulants before bed:

  • Stop using electronic devices one hour before bedtime.
  • Don’t drink coffee seven hours before bedtime.
  • Put your devices in “night mode” two hours before bedtime.
  • Don’t go to bed drunk (you’ll fall asleep faster, but the quality of sleep you’ll get will be poor).

Additional resources:

9. Food with no quality nutrients

No matter your diet preferences, balancing the right nutrients always works.

“Our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food.”
— Hippocrates

How to say no to food with no quality nutrients:

  • Don’t buy junky snacks.
  • Cook your own meals.
  • Use a service that gives you quality ingredients to cook recipes (Goodfood in Canada is a good example).

Additional resources:

Productivity

Photo by elizabeth lies on Unsplash

Say no to…

10. Reading things you don’t enjoy

Seriously, you don’t have to finish everything you start. The author won’t know. Stop reading bad books — there’s too much great stuff out there.

“Life is too short to read a bad book.”
— James Joyce

How to say no to reading things you don’t enjoy:

Nonfiction:

  • Set your intention before reading the book. If you don’t see value within the first 30 minutes… skip it.
  • Read the back cover, intro, and table of contents. Jump to the sections you’re most interested in.

Fiction:

  • Recognize that if the book can’t hook you in the first 30 to 60 minutes, chances are it never will.
  • Don’t force yourself to finish a book from a series just because you hope the next one will be better. It probably won’t.

Additional resources:

11. Completing useless things

Prioritize your tasks, and only do the ones that matter.

“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”
— Peter Drucker

How to say no to completing useless things:

  • Reflect regularly on your priorities.
  • Know what is useless.

Additional resources:

12. Tap-on-the-shoulder interruptions

A report from the workplace-research firm Udemy found that the biggest factor reducing productivity is tap-on-the-shoulder interruptions.

“Noisy, interruption-prone offices make employees unmotivated, stressed, and frustrated.”
— Udemy

How to say no to tap-on-the-shoulder interruptions:

  • With your colleagues, set rules for when it is and isn’t okay to interrupt you. (For example, if I’m wearing my over-ear headphones, my colleagues know to leave me alone.)
  • Ask your manager to work remotely on some days.
  • Do your core work before or after most people are at the office.

Additional resources:

13. Responding to messages ad hoc

Set blocks of times to answer messages.

“Emails get reaction. Phone calls start conversations.”
— Simon Sinek

How to say no to responding to messages ad hoc:

  • Specify blocks of time in your week to reply to messages. (I do this at 2 p.m. every day.)
  • Don’t leave your email client displayed on your computer.
  • Turn off non-important notifications on your phone.
  • Don’t dual screen for tasks that don’t require two screens (most don’t).

Additional resources:

14. Doing things you can delegate

Find your superpower and delegate the stuff that’s outside of it.

“As much as you need a strong personality to build a business from scratch, you must also understand the art of delegation.”
— Richard Branson

How to say no to doing things you can delegate:

  • Recognize what needs to be delegated (see Quadrant 3 of the Eisenhower Matrix).
  • You know someone who can do it better and faster? Delegate to them. Return the favor later.
  • Consider this question: What would you be doing if your time was worth $1,000 an hour?

Additional resources:

15. Overly long meetings

In meetings, bring people back on track or leave. It seems rude, but in the long run, people will thank you for it.

“Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”
— Miles Davis

How to say no to overly long meetings:

  • Require an agenda.
  • Assign a timekeeper who’s not afraid to bring people to order.
  • Invite only the people that should participate.
  • Leave the small talk for the water cooler.

Additional resources:

Relationships

Source

Say no to…

16. Takers

Say “yes” to givers. Be a giver yourself.

“Know the difference between those who stay to feed the soil and those who come to grab the fruit.”
Pinterest.com

How to say no to takers:

  • Recognize who’s a taker (they always ask or even demand things).
  • Set ground rules and confront them (in a nice way).
  • Stop giving to them until their behavior/mindset changes.
  • Spend more time with givers like yourself.

Additional resources:

17. Social media

Uninstall the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram apps from your phone. There — I just gave you back hours of your day.

“Never before has a generation so diligently recorded themselves accomplishing so little.”
— Unknown

How to say no to social media:

  • Uninstall apps from your phone.
  • Use blocker apps to lock usage of certain apps.
  • Schedule a block of time when it’s okay for you to use social media.
  • Use browser extensions that cull your feed.

Additional resources:

18. Listening to complaints about others

Gossiping is poisonous. Avoid people who spread it.

“Who gossips to you will gossip of you.”
— Turkish Proverb

How to say no to gossiping:

  • Spend more time with positive people.
  • Spend more time with productive people.
  • Detect it and make it clear to others you don’t want any part in it.
  • Reroute the discussion to something more positive and productive.

Additional resources:

19. Naysayers

If someone doesn’t have time for you, don’t find time for them. Relationships are mutual.

“Naysayers have little power over us — unless we give it to them.”
Arianna Huffington

How to say no to naysayers:

  • After three “no”s on the same subject from the same person, stop trying.
  • Surround yourself with positive people.
  • Safeguard your goals.
  • Know your “why.”

Additional resources:

Work-life balance

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Say no to…

20. Bad Routines

Don’t get stuck in an unproductive routine. You can change things around.

“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.”
— Warren Buffett

How to say no to bad routines:

  • Spend time each month to design a routine that works for you.
  • Realize the potential and dangers of bad habits.
  • Perform a good routine with other people.

Additional resources:

21. Bad clients

Money isn’t everything. If a client is not good to you, turn your energy to the ones who are.

“It is better to starve than get a bad client.”
— Massimo Vignelli

How to say no to bad clients:

  • Recognize your values.
  • If working with a client isn’t a “hell yeah!” it’s a no.
  • If you’re currently working with a bad client, finish the contract peacefully and don’t renew it.

Additional resources:

22. Spending your work hours doing personal stuff

Give your full attention to your work. It won’t go unnoticed.

“You can always find a distraction if you’re looking for one.”
— Tom Kite

How to say no to doing life stuff at work:

  • Be grateful for your employment and do what you’re paid to do.
  • Remember that outdoing yourself is a good way to get a promotion or a raise.
  • Do work you enjoy and fills your time.

Additional resources:

23. Doing work stuff at home

Give your full attention to your family — it won’t go unnoticed.

“When you work, work. When you play, play. Don’t mix the two.”
— Jim Rohn

How to say no to doing work stuff at home:

  • Don’t open or close any work-related windows on your computer.
  • Turn off work notifications before or after your work hours.
  • Plan smarter.

Additional resources:

24. A bad business partner

Communication is key. Work things out or walk away.

“I can’t control your behavior; nor do I want that burden… but I will not apologize for refusing to be disrespected, to be lied to, or to be mistreated. I have standards; step up or step out.”
— Steve Maraboli

How to say no to a bad business partner:

  • Clarify motives from the very beginning.
  • Force them to be truthful.
  • Create a partnership dissolution agreement.
  • Make sure that you can communicate professionally with a potential partner before saying “yes” to them.

Additional resources:

Environment

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Say no to…

25. Clutter

Have a clean workspace, both physically, mentally and on your computer.

“Clutter is anything that doesn’t support your better self.”
— Eleanor Brown

How to say no to cluttered environments:

  • Take photos of your space and send it to someone who’ll keep you accountable weekly.
  • Donate junk regularly.
  • Make it a habit to finish or start the day tidying up.
  • Find ways to reduce your available space.

Additional resources:

26. Toxic people

Make time for people that don’t bring you down.

“It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around when you remove toxic people from your life.”
— Robert Tew

How to say no to toxic people:

  • Spend more time with people who share your values.
  • Join online groups of like-minded individuals.
  • Be truthful and let someone know you’re ready to move on.
  • Find a mentor who’ll help you remove yourself from toxic people.

Additional resources:

27. Spending most of your time with the wrong people

The people you surround yourself with have a bigger impact than you imagine. Choose wisely.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
— Jim Rohn

How to say no to spending most of your time with the wrong people:

  • Figure out your values.
  • Have a clear purpose.
  • Find people who share your values and purpose.
  • Track down where your time is spent.

Additional resources:

28. Poor sleeping conditions

Sleep is the most important thing for your body. Don’t neglect it.

“When I wake up, I am reborn.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

How to say no to poor sleeping conditions:

  • Find ways to reduce noise at night.
  • Find a mattress that’s comfortable for you.
  • Follow your circadian rhythm.
  • Track your sleep.

Additional resources:

Everything Else

Photo by Regine Tholen on Unsplash

Say no to…

29. Waiting needlessly

Slow coffee machine? A traffic light when there are other options? A file upload? Just do something else! You can’t recycle wasted time.

How to say no to waiting needlessly:

  • Have a book ready.
  • Meditate.
  • Journal.
  • Walk around the block.
  • Respond to emails.

Additional resources:

30. Comparing apples to oranges

Don’t waste time comparing things that don’t compare.

“Don’t compare yourself with anyone in this world. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”
— Bill Gates

How to say no to comparing apples to oranges:

  • Recognize key differences.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Observe the facts.
  • Focus on self-improvement over fascination.

Additional resources:

31. Your phone

The most productive people set their phones on airplane mode for most of the day. For me, it has become a brick of sorts.

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”
— Steven Spielberg

How to say no to your phone:

  • Uninstall everything you don’t need.
  • Leave it in your pocket.
  • Put it in “do not disturb” mode.
  • Have a work phone and a regular phone.
  • Put it in grayscale.

Additional resources:

Learning to say “no” is a skill. Practice it. Master it. Say “no” to the right things now and you’ll be happier for it. You can do this.

Appendix A. Visual Representations

*All the mind maps were created with MindMeister.

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