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Before you say “Yes”: What are you saying “No” to?

Saying “yes” is simple, and likely to be rewarding. We all share 6 basic human needs (certainty, variety, significance, connection, growth and contribution), and saying “yes” is likely to satisfy most, if not all, of them. Thus, it can become addictive.

By saying “yes”, we obtain a sense of certainty, e.g., we know “it” will be done properly, because we are going to do it ourselves. It can also bring variety – saying “yes” to new things can be exciting. Our desire to feel a sense of significance, connection, growth and contribution is highly satisfied when we agree to do things for others.

Further, our sense of self as a kind, giving, generous and useful person is also likely to be reaffirmed when we say “yes”. With all of this reinforcement for our “yes” habit, there’s no surprise that many of us say “yes” more than we intend to!

However, saying “yes” can also lead to feelings of overwhelm, stress, dissatisfaction and resentment.  I would even dare to say there is an epidemic of people who feel chronically over-committed and desperate to reduce the number of things on their never-ending and ever-growing “to do” list.

If you have found yourself feeling that sense of overwhelm, you may have reached the conclusion that you need to be more strategic. This begs the question – what does “being strategic” actually mean?

Michael Porter, a respected academic who has written extensively about business strategy and competition (among several other topics), suggests that “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

When I came across this definition, I found myself nodding vigorously. He is absolutely right. The use of a strategic “no” can not only liberate you from doing something you don’t want to do, it also frees you up to say “yes” to something more important.

Deciding what to say “no” to can seem daunting, especially if you are a seasoned “yesser”. One helpful approach is to identify your top 5 values, which then become your points of reference when faced with a request. Having clarity about your priorities will make it simple to evaluate each request on their merits and make your decision based on what is in alignment with your priorities.

Often, we say “yes” out of fear. We are afraid that if we don’t say “yes” we may experience rejection, or judgement, or disappointment, or we might miss out on something. However, when we say “no” for the right reasons, those undesirable outcomes become (a) less likely; and (b) less impactful, because we enjoy the certainty that come from making choices that align with our highest priorities.

In my personal quest to attain the elusive “work life balance” (I’ll be sure to let you know when I find it), I have developed an aspiration to: “Say yes when I mean yes, and no when I mean no.” My “yes” habit is stubborn and difficult to break, which makes this aspiration surprisingly difficult. However, it is extremely powerful when I get it right. And now that I’m getting better at saying “no”, I’m working on doing so without offering to do something else instead!

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