Many people thought last week’s challenge of saying no to almost everything sounded, if not impossible, at least unwise.
After all, don’t successful people say yes to everything and take chances?
Well, yes and no.
“There is a flip side to saying no,” says senior editor Erin Schulte, who participated in this week’s challenge. “It means you are saying ‘yes’ to something else more important to you. I’m okay with that trade-off.”
“I think there are seasons of ‘no,’ and seasons of ‘yes.’ A challenge like this is a good reason to evaluate or reevaluate which one you might be in,” she explained.
We were inspired to spend a week saying no to nearly every request we got after talking to Kristin Muhlner, the CEO of NewBrand Analytics. When Muhlner shared her habit of turning down most requests for her time, she said “I’m really ruthless in terms of doing only those things which are absolutely essential. I’m saying no to a lot, both in work and life.”
She claims that being strategic about what she chooses to do, rather than doing all of those things she feels she should do, frees her up to be fully present in the things that she does say yes to.
So did it work for us, as well?
This challenge wasn’t hard for me, as a journalist I’m used to both saying no and being told no. This challenge did make me more aware of how much I say no every day and how I still feel like I don’t know where the time goes–I can’t imagine if I said yes to everything.
Schulte felt the same way. “I have two kids under 5 and a full-time job–if I said “yes ” to everything, I’d have zero hours in the day for either. ‘No’ is my default mode–I honestly think a bigger challenge for me would be a ‘yes’ challenge, where I have to shift out of my ‘no mode’ and say yes to some things I otherwise might not.”
Saying no to our kids or our friends gave us twinges of guilt, like when Valerie Lapinski, video producer for FastCo Studios, turned down a request from a friend who needed to talk about a personal problem. “That was hard for me because I always drop everything for my friends. This person understood, luckily, and I got my task done and was able to fully listen to her when I was done,” she says.
Muhlner puts it into perspective that even if we let people down in the short term, that doesn’t define our long-term relationships. She said, “It’s very hard to feel like we’re disappointing people, especially our children. I find that I have to constantly remind myself that my best relationships are marathons, not sprints.”
And for Lapinski, the habit of saying no in her personal life helped her realize which relationships were valuable. She said, “I often fear that if I say no, an amazing conversation or collaborative opportunity will be lost. But that’s not really true. If you cultivate good, intentional relationships, they stick with you even if you have to say no from time to time.”
Some things were pretty easy to say no to. We all agreed that we routinely say no to networking events and unsolicited pitches.
Here’s a small sample of the things I said no to last week:
- A press event about ringtones
- Participating in an email recipe exchange with 30 other people
- Paying monthly dues for an organization I quit two months ago (well, I half said no..I paid one month instead of two, guilt got the best of me)
- A cold pitch from a writer that started with “How’s Tricks?”
- Countless emails that were follow-ups on things that I had previously not responded to because I wasn’t interested
- At least 20 invitations for a quick coffee, lunch, or a “desk side chat”
For others, it was about resisting temptation. “So far I’ve only said ‘no’ to guacamole at Chipotle, but for me this is serious!” said reader Andy Kirn.
The most challenging part of saying no for me was saying no to myself and delegating things that weren’t the best use of my time. Several times during the week I found myself resisting “I’ll just do it myself” syndrome: Should I make a quick correction to a story or delegate the task to someone else? Should I offer to write a blog post or assign it to someone else?
But as a reader named Amy pointed out, resisting delegating does more harm than good in the long run. She said, “Quite often it feels like I may have to spend as much time explaining and/ or reviewing than by actually doing it myself. This is probably not true. It also puts a lot of pressure on just me, and takes away the feeling of being on a team and supported.”
In the end we all agree that the real art of saying no is about being smart about what you say yes to.
Chris Boyce, the CEO of Virgin Pulse, took the challenge for one day last week and said that it made him feel less stressed and more productive. His method was to say yes to one thing and no to everything else that got in his way, he said: “I started a day with a goal of completing one ‘must-do’ task for the day: prepare for an upcoming speaking engagement. Then I aimed to reduce the number of ‘can wait’ emails I answered.”
And as Muhlner reminded us, “Sometimes saying no just means asking for help.” Which is a habit most of us could stand to get better at.
This week we are working from home to see if it makes us more productive. Try it out for yourself and then join us for a Live Chat at 11 a.m. ET to see how it went.