Why saying no gets you ahead

August 19, 2014, 4:58 PM UTC
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Everyone knows the adage: good fences make good neighbors. Basically, it means to set firm boundaries. By setting boundaries, we find the freedom to behave in our best interest, with fewer distractions and fewer unwanted intrusions. This is even more important in our digital age, where there are so many people vying for our attention and so many ways to be distracted.

Building good fences—setting boundaries—is one of the most important skills to master for both personal and professional growth. And one of the most important aspects of a good fence is the ability to say no to the people, activities and engagements that we do not enjoy or that do not advance us personally or professionally. When you say no to the things that don’t help you, you are, in effect, saying yes to the things that will. By saying no, you open up the space necessary for yes.

For most of us, saying no is exceedingly difficult. We seem to say yes to everything. I think one of the reasons we find it so hard to say no, especially as women, is that we want to be liked. We want to be seen as team players. We want to be included. We don’t want to hurt feelings by closing our door or, God forbid, saying no to someone or something. We say yes to too many things maybe out of guilt or maybe to prove that we can do it all.

Whatever the psychological back story, whatever the reason, the fact remains that saying yes to too many things is overwhelming and counterproductive. By saying yes to too many things, we may be saying no to some very important things. If our plate is too full, there’s no room for the unexpected or ideal opportunity. If our fences aren’t strong, everything gets in.

We have to build good fences and resolve to say yes only to the things we enjoy, that advance our careers, or that don’t distract us from our goals.

Here are seven tips to help you say no:

Implement a 24-hour pause period. Give yourself 24 hours before accepting any invitations, professional or personal. You don’t have to give an answer right away! Think about what you will get out of it, if it’s worth your precious time, and if it’s something you really want to do. Also consider what is already on your plate? Will you have to give something up?

For example, when you have received an invitation, simply say: “Thank you for the invitation. Let me check my schedule and think about it, and I’ll get back to you tomorrow.” If it is something you really want to do but simply can’t, be sure to convey that: “Thank you so much for the invitation. I can’t do that right now, but I would love to serve in the future, and I hope you will keep me in mind for future events/projects.”

Say no with grace and authority. We know how to say yes, but we don’t know how to say no, and we often go down a rabbit hole of excuses, especially if it’s something we don’t want to do. If you’ve thought about the invitation and the answer is no, decline gracefully but authoritatively. Here’s how to do it without twisting yourself in a knot of excuses and guilt:

If you really don’t want to do it: “Thanks for the invitation. I’m afraid I will not be able to make it/accept/serve on your committee, but I really appreciate you thinking of/including me.”

If the person presses you for a reason, say: “I’m just not able to make it, but thanks so much.”

If they really press, say: “I have so many other things on my plate/in the pipeline that I am simply not available. But thank you.”

Do not offer maybes, half-steps, or specifics. And you don’t have to lie—it’s not a lie to say that there are other things on your plate or in the pipeline.

Now, if you would actually like to accept the invitation but cannot, and you want to stay on that person’s radar, make that clear:

“Thank you so much for the invitation. I would love to do it/serve/get involved, but I just can’t right now. I hope you will think of me again.”

Honest, simple, straight forward.

Simplify your commitments. Resign from boards, committees, organizations, or commitments that are not value added. If you don’t enjoy it, aren’t fulfilled by it, or it doesn’t help you personally or professionally, stop doing it. Make sure each commitment is meaningful and worth your time. And “just for fun” is A-OK in my book.

Create white space on your calendar. Say no to those lunch dates, dinners, or events you don’t enjoy. You know exactly which ones I’m talking about.

Minimize meetings. Say no to meetings that aren’t essential. Do you really need to go? Is it critical for you to be there? Again, weigh it against your goals and responsibilities. If it measures up meaningfully, do it. If not, don’t go. And only attend meetings where the creator has planned enough to include the agenda.

Notice the “shoulds.” Only do volunteer work if you enjoy it or it helps burnish your skills. If it feels like a chore or a “should” change your focus or stop doing it.

Set your boundaries, and stick to them. Part of saying no is establishing boundaries at work and at home and then being clear about them. We teach people how to treat us, so we have to re-teach them our boundaries. For example, if you do not wish to be bothered, simply say: “I’m sorry. I can’t discuss that right now. I am working on something else. How about at 4 p.m.?” If you don’t want to work in the evenings or on weekends then don’t. Let people know when you will be available, and then do not answer calls, texts, or emails during that down time.

You need to train people. If you have to, use a vacation responder or voice mail for after hours, something like: “Thank you for your call/email. My regular work hours are X. If this is an emergency, please contact X. Otherwise, I will respond to your call/email when I return on X.”

If colleagues call or contact you in the evenings and on weekends, train yourself not to take their calls or respond to their texts or emails. When you are back to work, you might say:

“I’m sorry I wasn’t able to take your call. Unless it’s an emergency, I do not work after 7 p.m. or on weekends.”

In order to reach your goals you have to build some fences to guard and protect yourself so you can grow. This means discriminating between the things that help you get there and the things that don’t. Learn to say no to the people, situations, and commitments that do not move you toward your goal, that distract you, or that you simply do not enjoy. Be purposeful in your actions—learn to say no! It’s a powerful little word with a huge impact.

Camille Preston is founder and CEO of AIM Leadership. She is also author of the e-book, The Rewired Resolution: Eight Ways to Work Smarter, Live Better, and be More Productive.