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The Art of Saying No – Protecting Your Time and Energy for What Truly Matters to You

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How can saying “no” to others be the best way to say “yes”, to you? Some people seem to have lots of time to live the life they want. What are they doing that others don’t? They say “no”, more often. To what do they say “no”? To what do they say “yes”? Learn the techniques they use and improve your life, too.

How often do we say “yes” to requests, obligations, and distractions? How often do we then find ourselves juggling an ever-growing pile of commitments until our time, energy, and morale have run dry?

Too often.

Many people feel guilty or selfish when saying “no” to others. The truth is, saying “no” is not about selfishness; it’s about self-preservation. It’s about recognising that your time and energy are very limited. You deserve to have your time invested in pursuits that truly matter to you. Saying “no” is about reclaiming your life from the clutches of yourself and other imposed lists of “must-dos and should-dos” and embracing the liberating power of “I choose”.

Although we know that choosing what to do with our time is logically right, we still fear disappointing others, missing out on opportunities, or appearing uncooperative. 

Most of us have been conditioned to believe that a packed schedule equals success, and saying “no” might signal the opposite.

With social and self-expectations pressing on us, saying “no” can be a struggle. Even when we know that we ought to say ‘no,’ doing so needs to be well handled, especially with people we care for. That places yet another demand on us.

How do we avoid the harsh, blunt, and callous refusal? How do we master the delicate art of setting boundaries in a way that is respectful to others and authentic and empowering for ourselves?

Here are some guiding principles for saying “no” like a pro.

  • Know your values. To master the art of saying “no”, it is necessary to understand what truly matters to you. What are your non-negotiables? Your passions? Your goals? Your priorities? When you have a clear sense of your goals and values, it becomes easier to identify requests that don’t align with them. That makes saying ‘no’ without guilt or hesitation entirely reasonable.
  • Be clear and direct. While politeness is important, there’s no need to beat around the bush. Say “no” clearly and directly while expressing appreciation for the offer or invitation. “Thank you for asking me, but I’m not able to make it or do it” or “I appreciate your request, but I have a lot on my plate right now” are perfectly acceptable responses.
  • Offer an alternative (sometimes). In some cases, you may want to offer an alternative that better aligns with your priorities or energy levels. Here are some helpful ways to demonstrate your willingness to contribute while still setting boundaries: “I’m not available tomorrow, but would love to meet next week” or “I can’t take on the entire project, but I’d be happy to help with a specific aspect.”
  • Avoid justifications. Having offered justifications in the responses above, it should be said that you do not owe anyone an explanation for your “no” decision. Trying to justify your decision often leads to guilt and can give someone the opportunity to start pressuring you to change your mind. Often, it is best to simply state your “no” and leave it at that. Your time is yours, and you have the right to use it as you see fit.
  • Respect other people’s “no’s”. Just as you deserve to have your “no” respected, it’s important to respect the nos of others. Don’t pressure or try to gaslight or guilt someone into changing their mind. Their ‘no’ is just as valid as yours.
  • Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” will feel uncomfortable at first, but practice lessens its self-impact. Start by saying “no” to small things, like extra obligations or unnecessary social engagements. As your confidence builds, you will soon be saying “no” to bigger, non-aligned requests. Eventually, “no” will feel natural and empowering.

The benefits of mastering the art of saying “no” are many. You’ll have more time and energy for the things that truly matter to you. You will experience less stress and be at reduced risk of burnout. You can use your saved time to build better relationships, and be more present and engaged in the things you choose to do. Gradually, others will see you as someone who knows what they want and values their time. That normally earns respect and admiration.

The people who seem to have it all, the ones who lead fulfilling lives, maintain healthy relationships, and pursue their passions, are those who have already mastered the art of saying “no”. They have learned to prioritise their goals and values, protect their time, morale, and energy, and invest in what truly matters to them. They have reframed “no”; it is not a rejection. It is a powerful affirmation of oneself.

Reclaim your time and energy. Invest in your goals and values. Then enjoy watching as your life is freed from unwelcome, burdensome obligations, and you have more time to enjoy your passions and purpose. 

Initially, saying “no” is far from easy, yet, with a bit of practice, it could be the most empowering gift you ever give yourself. 

To what will you start saying “no”, today so that you have more time to focus on what really matters to you?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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