A 5-Step Road Map for Saying ‘No’

Even when you’re feeling pressured to say ‘yes’

No left turn sign with a one way right turn sign.
No left turn sign with a one way right turn sign.

Making the best use of your time means knowing when — and how — to say no. The time-management expert, author, and regular contributor to Forge, Laura Vanderkam puts it like this: “The question isn’t would I rather do this thing or nothing, it’s would I rather do this thing or everything else in my already packed life that I’m currently living.”

To make the most of your time, you will need to say no to things that aren’t particularly aligned with your personal or professional goals. Clear your calendar and energy to say yes to the big stuff, the meaningful, the exciting, and potentially scary but boundary-pushing stuff that would actually be enriching to take on. Remember, saying no to something now will allow you to say yes to something else later.

Here’s how to say no in a way you can feel good about (even if you feel like you’re expected to say yes):

1. Remind yourself that time is valuable and once it’s spent you absolutely can’t get it back.

2. Ask yourself: “Would I be willing to do this thing tomorrow?” It’s easy to sign yourself up for something in April when it’s only September. Do your future self a favor and try this little exercise.

3. Respond quickly. Don’t leave people hanging once you know you’re saying no.

4. Own your “no” if it’s not a priority (because something else actively is): “Thanks so much for thinking of me. I’m not going to be able to take this on, but I wish you the best with X.”

5. Reframe your “no” to assuage your guilt (if it’s something you genuinely wish you had time for). Acknowledge that this commitment is significant to you, even if you’re not taking it on. A good sample script: “This is so important that it deserves someone’s full energy, and since I can’t do that because I have XYZ other thing, I would be dishonoring the importance of this event/role/weekend getaway by saying yes.”

author of The Little Book of Life Skills (September 2020), contributing editor at Parents and longtime magazine editor and writer. @erinzruddy on Instagram.

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