Why learning to say NO is more important than you think

Oct 22, 2021

Remembering that it's ok to say NO has come up a lot personally & professionally recently.


In a professional context, I am finding that the lack of face-time with managers while WFH, a feeling that we have to work doubly hard to been "seen to be working" and the desire not to be seen as either unhelpful or unable to cope, means a lot of people are finding it very hard to say no to work or time requests in an office environment. For those who run their own business, turning down work or requests for help feels like "bad karma" after 18months of upheaval.

In a personal context, re-opening of both work and social activities has left a lot of us with more demands on our time and energy than ever. Again, is it bad karma to resent these requests now we are used to having more control?


Why learning to say NO is important.

There are periods in life when saying “yes” to everything is a good idea. It opens up new opportunities, experiences and feeds a sense of adventure and progress. But these windows are shorter than we think, and over a longer period, it is unsustainable.


Saying NO keeps us out of stress, overwhelm and resentment, and in a zone of meaning and motivation.

The obvious impact of saying NO is that it leaves us more time, energy, positive attitude, and often mental capacity for the things that are important, that we want to bring our “best self” to.

By saying NO to the right things, we can stop the small things from mounting up and stealing time from our own self-care time. It keeps us out of overwhelm, away from burnout, and feeling in control of our own destiny.

When we take on too much, especially of the wrong things, we edge towards being someone that we don’t really want to be. Over time this will cause resentment and stress about the things we do and the people who “made" us do them.

Unfortunately, these feelings are contagious. They infect not just what we agreed to do, but everything else as well. The bad energy and lack of motivation start to impact things that we want to do well.


Saying YES without consideration can limit opportunities and respect, and increase internal stress.

There is also a less obvious but very stressful consequence of being the YES person, or “do-er” which I often come across when people want to move forward in their career or change their role/relationship with other people.  

We won't always get the opportunity to challenge ourselves, develop new skills or show quite what we are capable of. The line between supporting others, growing, getting the right opportunities, and being the busy slave/implementor is a very fine one! One I, like many others, have been on the wrong side of. The stress of being stuck there is a painful form of hopeless overwhelm.


Most people make assumptions about someone’s role from the jobs or tasks we see them doing and how they choose to allocate their time.  This raises a few potential issues.

1)      We want to be taken more seriously but don’t have time to take on the bigger projects or plan/ask for/implement our move up.

2)      We are more likely to get stuck doing “legacy” tasks. Things that could be passed on or that help a colleague who has clearer priorities.

3)      The perception of being able to allocate time, delegate, prioritise complex issues, and generally cope with important things is valued at higher levels. Knowing when to say NO is a key strength.

Interestingly, the stress we encounter from saying NO (it is discomfort stress that most of us are avoiding when we say YES against our better judgment) is weaker and shorter-lived than the longer-term stress we experience as a consequence of saying YES. 



Most of us aren't as good at knowing when to say no as we think we are. So for the next few days notice...

  • how do you feel when you say "yes" or "no" to things?  (excited, challenged, on auto-pilot, resentful, irritated,...)
  • what energy or attitude do they bring you... and how does this impact other things that are important to you?
  • are there particular situations or people you find it harder to say "no" to?
  • why did you agree to it (or say no)?
  • is there anything you would choose to do instead?

Hopefully this will help you assess how effective you are at setting your boundaries in the appropriate place. 



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