You Say Yes, I Say No – 7 Tips to Help Minimize Commitments







February 1, 2015

Saying yes is easy: We want to please others. We don’t want to disappoint. We want to be able to do everything. We don’t want to miss any opportunities. Saying no, on the other hand, is hard.

Saying yes is easy: We want to please others. We don't want to disappoint. We want to be able to do everything. We don't want to miss any opportunities.

Saying no, on the other hand, is hard: Someone might get offended. We want to keep our options open. Everyone else said yes. The request is coming from your boss. But, failing to say no when you should leads to stress, reduced quality of whatever it is you're working on (you're over-stretched with commitments), and strained relationships because you can't keep your promises.

At least seven out of ten people I meet while conducting productivity trainings indicate they wish they were better at saying no more often. In fact, I used to be a natural-born yes-sayer myself, but the below tips have helped me say no a lot more often than I used to.

1. Have a standard, non-committal answer ready.

This is the most important one I use myself. As soon as I hear someone starting to formulate something which sounds like a request, I've gotten my brain into the habit of starting to say "no, no, no" (while still listening to the actual proposition of course :) ).

If the request is very simple and can really be done right away, I will usually agree (keep in mind though that there are very few truly simple requests and be extra wary of the "it-only-takes-5-minutes"-camouflaged time bombs). For everything else, I pull out one of my non-committal answers:

  • "I need to check my schedule and see what other commitments I have for this period."
  • "It sounds interesting, but I need to give it a night's sleep."
  • "I need to check with my colleague / spouse / shareholders / coach / cat / whatever."
  • "I need to see how it fits in with the priorities I've set for this week / month / year."

These are just some of the ones I use, feel free to make your own and learn them by heart.

The point here is not to come up with a lame excuse nor to keep the other person waiting indefinitely. But you deserve some time to evaluate whatever request is thrown at you and nobody should be offended when you don't want to commit on the spot (if they are, that's their problem). Do make sure you get back to the person in 24 - 48 hours with your decision, else you're not respecting them and simply dragging your feet.

2. Don't be fooled by great opportunities.

"Do you want to clean up the mess I made on the toilet? I just don't feel like doing it myself." Unless you owe someone a huge favor or you're taking care of a sick loved one, it's pretty clear we should say no to this request (at least you can sleep on it for a night!).

Now what about this one: "Do you want to be on the jury of our super prestigious coolest product design of the year awards committee?" Trusting these awards are indeed super prestigious and coolest, this sounds like an honor. You can boost on Facebook that you're in a jury, get to rate other people's work and add this to your LinkedIn profile.

Why would you say no? Well, it all depends on your goals (no goals? Don't worry, see number 6 below). If you're a designer and you need to build your reputation within the industry, this might indeed be a great opportunity. If your core focus is not product design, this is just something which pleases your ego. You're flattered they've asked you and care about your opinion. But what will it bring you? It will cost you time which you can't spend on your real work or with your kids, so it doesn't contribute to things which are important to you in the long term.

Be very careful with great sounding opportunities. Therefore, especially with these type of requests, go for the "I need to sleep on it for a night" non-committal answer. There are few opportunities which can't wait for 24 - 48 hours.

3. Use the “Essentialist Importance List” at work.

In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown describes a tool for prioritizing your commitments in life:

  1. List everything you're working on or want to work on.
  2. Rate all those "projects" by how important they are to you from 0 - 10 (don't mistake "important" for "urgent"!).
  3. Now get rid of everything which you rated below a 9!

The secret to living like an Essentialist is getting rid of those 6's, 7's and 8's. That hurts and it's extremely hard, but that's exactly the point: you want to excel at the few 9's and 10's you have and not be distracted by all the other merely good and mediocre stuff.

What does this have to do with saying no? I've found this system to be useful for more than just sorting out the main priorities in your life. You can also apply this method to your daily todo list, weekly goals or when taking on new projects at work.

Often saying no is hardest when bosses and peers assign you new projects and tasks, without having a full overview of all your commitments. This is where the Essentialist Importance List can come in handy as a communication tool:

  1. Keep a list of all the projects you're working on in a simple spreadsheet (ideally on Google Docs, so you can easily share the list).
  2. Give them an importance rating according to the above steps (depending on your decision power you can do this by yourself or in cooperation with your boss and/or peers).
  3. Use this list as a discussion tool when you get assigned new projects: "Here are my current projects and their importance, how important do you rank this new assignment you want to give me and which project should I remove and/or lower in importance?"

Oftentimes bosses and colleague's are not as evil as we make them out to be. Even though you think they should be fully aware of everything on your plate, they probably aren't. They're also human beings with a lot on their mind and they will not be able to track everything which is going on on your end. This tool will usually help them to judge your workload and priorities, so without you having to say no, they might take their assignment elsewhere or ensure you get freed up to be able to work on their new project.

4. Going from no to yes is easy, the other way is not.

This is not so much a tip or tool, but just something to keep in mind. Nine out of ten times, it's easy to go from a no to a yes. People will be happy if you give them a call the next day to inform them you changed your mind: "I thought it over and I'd love to take you up on that great opportunity you offered me yesterday!"

Now imagine the other way around. Once you have given your commitment, going from a yes to a no is nearly impossible, at least not without hurting, disappointing or upsetting the person you said yes to. Therefore, don't feel pressured when someone asks you to do something. Just remember you can always go from a no to a yes, usually within the next 24 - 48 hours.

5. Use a decision journal to make up your mind.

There is something magical about writing your thoughts out on paper. This is true in many areas (blogging about your expertise, keeping a journal, writing out an idea) and also applies when making decisions.

When you keep something in your head, you can have the impression you completely understand the topic. But once you start writing it out on paper, you realize there are some gaps in your thinking. Somehow your brain can easily fool itself by ignoring missing links in your head. Once you write it out, you see what does and doesn't make sense.

A decision journal sounds more complicated than it is. When you're in doubt about a decision, you write out your considerations using the following questions:

  1. What are my reasons for choosing "yes"?
  2. What are my reasons for choosing "no"?
  3. Are there any alternatives?
  4. What are the expected consequences of my decision?
  5. What's my final decision?

Though this seems ridiculously simple (and it is!), this approach usually makes it very obvious whether you should go for a yes or a no. Try it out right now with a decision that's on your mind! I'll be waiting right here until you're done.

6. Warren Buffett's 'Two-List' Strategy

Though not a direct way to say no, Buffett's approach can help you identify what you should and shouldn't be working on (hence helping you determine what to say no to). It's something he advised his personal pilot Mike Flint to do and goes something like this:

  1. Write down your top 25 career and/or life goals.
  2. Once you have your top 25, review the list and pick your top 5 (most important) goals. If you want to apply this technique, I recommend you do step 1 and 2 now, before coming back to the article, as step 3 is a bit surprising.
  3. Everything you did not circle at step 2 just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top 5.

Just like the Essentialist Importance List, the beauty of this approach is that it acknowledges all your "good" opportunities as actual dangers to your "excellent" opportunities. You can't work at 25 things at the same time, so you have to pick the five most important ones. The other 20 are your "temptations" that distract from your top 5 and shouldn't be touched until those are done.

7. Opportunity comes knocking: how much is it worth to you?

An opportunity ain't called an opportunity for nothing. It has a positive sound to it, hence it's difficult for us to even consider saying no. Unfortunately, not all opportunities are created equal. There are more websites to design, more parties to go to and more connections to stay in touch with than ever before. This means we can be overwhelmed with requests, especially if we achieve even a minor degree of success in our domain. A great question (again from Essentialism) to ask yourself when "faced" with an opportunity:

If I didn't have this opportunity, what would I be willing to do to acquire it?"

This puts things in perspective and helps put a value on the opportunity presented to you: if it didn't fall into your lap, how much effort would you be willing to put in to get it? If the answer is "not much", you probably shouldn't be spending your time on it and say no.

Too Many Commitments

Merely indicating you need a night to sleep on something because you're faced with too many commitments, can be enough to create understanding and even respect. Everyone is suffering the same fate nowadays and people will appreciate you carefully weighing your decisions. Keep this in mind when you feel hesitant to apply any of the above techniques. Even with the above list, it will still be hard to say no. But if you keep practicing, it will turn into a habit over time and your life will become more manageable and fulfilling as a result of it. Let's end with a great tip from Tim Hardford in his article "The power of saying no":

There is one final trick that those of us with family commitments can try. All those lessons about opportunity cost have taught me that every 'no' to a request from an acquaintance is also a 'yes' to my family. Yes, I will be home for bedtime. Yes, I will switch off my computer at the weekend. And so from time to time, as I compose my apologetic 'sorry, no', I type my wife’s email address in the 'bcc' field. The awkward email to the stranger is also a tiny little love letter to her."

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