How To Say No: 9 Ways to Do It with Grace, Not Guilt

Whenever I have a conversation about resolutions, New Year’s or otherwise, the talk almost immediately turns to the DO. This year, I do want to sleep more, read more, go for more walks with Teddy, and take up dance lessons with Ben. Far less popular is the other side of the conversation, the DON’T.

How to Say No - 9 Ways to Say No Without Feeling Guilty | wellplated.com @wellplated

Despite my attempts to circumvent the limitations of time via a combination of sleep deprivation and coffee, the reality is that we are limited to 24 hours each day. The things that we don’t do, the ones to which we say no, define how we spend those hours just as much as the ones to which we say yes.

I’m still working on my list of goals for 2017 (aided by my Nourished Planner­—thanks Heidi!), and as my list grows longer and longer, I’ve realized that in order to say yes to even one thing, I need to say a word that makes me very, very uncomfortable.

I need to say no.

“No” is not a word that fits comfortably in my vocabulary. This is partly due to my life status as a people-pleaser. I never want to disappoint anyone, whether it’s a friend who wants to meet for dinner, a volunteer group that asks me to take a leadership role, or a client who asks for an extra project. Saying no feels like I’m letting someone down.

I also struggle to say no because, people-pleasing tendencies aside, the opportunity is often a good one that I legitimately want to take, no matter the consequences. When a girlfriend texts me to go out the night before I’m set to leave town but my suitcase is sitting empty in the middle of the bedroom floor, when I am presented the chance to travel for my blog but it would mean being gone from home three weeks in a row, when I can choose stay awake an extra hour to finish just one more thing before I go to bed—my default answer to all of these things, and more, is yes.

I am hardwired to opt in. I reason that I’m young, the opportunities might not come a second time, and I should do everything possible while I still can. I reason that I’ll figure out how to squeeze them (and everything else to which I’m already committed) in, one way or another.

I think you can see where this is going. It doesn’t work. When I try to squeeze something extra in, inevitably something else gets squeezed out. The first thing that goes is sleep. The next thing that goes (and I’m not proud of this) is quality time with Ben. The last thing that goes is work.

I’m still working to narrow down my list of 2017 goals from “impossibly long” to “outrageously aggressive” to, eventually, “ambitious but reasonable.” I don’t yet know what my top priorities will be, but I do know that, in order to say yes to them, I will need to say no. I will need to say no often. I will even need to say no to opportunities that I truly do want to take.

What to do in San Francisco: Visit Muir Woods

Over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly aware of my own need to say no and have been working to do just that. While my current sleep schedule (and sometimes stress level) says that I need to do it more, I have found several tips that have helped.

For today’s post, I’m sharing the nine best tips I’ve found so far for how to say no with grace, not guilt. Some of these are from my experience, and many were inspired by Essentialism, a book I read a few months ago and highly recommend, especially to those who feel overly busy, overly stressed, and overly committed (i.e. approximately everyone).

OK, here we go. How to Say No: 9 Ways to Be a Nay-Sayer…and Feel Great about It.


#1. Remember the YES.

Instead of focusing on what you are turning down—a night with friends, an extra task that might earn you recognition with your boss, a cool-sounding project for a new client—focus on what you are saying yes to: a good night of sleep so that you feel rested and less stressed for your trip the next day, more time with your family, growing your business’ #1 priority, whatever that might be.

Write those yeses down on a big, colorful piece of paper in permanent ink, then hang them in whichever location you are most likely to struggle to say no, whether that’s your desk, your refrigerator, or your cell phone (try screen shotting them and making them your lock screen).

Keep your YESes top of mind, and the nos will be both easier to issue and more obvious to recognize.


#2. Repeat after me: You can’t actually do it all.

Trust me, I’ve tried.

This tip goes with #1 above. Remember how I told you that whenever I try to squeeze something in, something else inevitably gets squeezed out, no matter how hard I try to do it all? Twenty-four hours is 24 hours. Either you choose your nos (and yeses) or, as Greg McKeown, the author of Essentialism, says, “someone else will choose for you.”


#3. Wait 24 hours.

Or even 24 seconds. Take a note from Teddy, that lovable, lazy pooch above. You don’t need to respond immediately, especially if the default word that pops out of your mouth (or flies from your fingers over email) is yes. Give yourself a day, even an hour, to step back and evaluate if this opportunity fits with the yeses you wrote down on that piece of paper. Once you have clearly determined if the proposed activity fits with your yeses, then you can respond.

Spoiler: Most of the time, it does not.

This tip might sound obvious, but I have been absolutely amazed by how much it has helped. I’m often victim to the “shiny object” phenomenon. Everything looks glittery and fun, so I grab at it immediately, and, before I realized what happened, I’m left with a mismatched bag of tchotchkes for which I now need to find a space on my shelves.

Every opportunity you take will need to find a place in your life and schedule. Be honest with yourself about a) whether or not you have the space and b) if you even like it in the first place. Fight the urge to give an answer right away, whether it’s over text, email, or even in person. You can always get back to someone later, after you’ve had a chance to honestly evaluate it.


#4. Choose discomfort over resentment.

How to Say No: 9 Tips to Say No with Grace

I owe this beautiful bit of wisdom to Kristen, who wisely shared it with me a few years ago. It’s much, much better to live with the momentary discomfort of turning someone down than it is to live with the ongoing resentment you will feel the entire time you complete an obligation you shouldn’t have said yes to in the first place.


#5. Be clear it isn’t personal.

9 Ways to Say No with Grace

This one works especially well over email. Let the person presenting the opportunity know that, as much as you would love to take it, you are having to turn down every extra opportunity, not just theirs, including ones as special as what they are presenting.

Translation: It’s not you, it’s me. And that is totally, 1,000% OK. This is your life, after all.


#6. Have a response ready.

Have a real, physical plan for how you will say no. Literally type that email, then save it as a canned response. Say it aloud to yourself in the mirror. Type it in a text message and stare at it. I am so serious about this. When the moment of truth comes, you’ll thank yourself for being prepared.

Pro tip: Do not enter your boss’ actual email address in the practice email draft. I probably don’t need to tell you this. Consider it a precautionary measure.


#7. Offer the CAN.

If it’s a situation where you don’t want to turn the person down completely, consider offering something that you can do that a) would be less of a commitment and b) you legitimately will not resent doing (see #4).

Here’s an example email I might send my well-intentioned, if overly involved, neighbor Beatrix after she asks me to head up our neighborhood bake sale. Since leading a bake sale isn’t going to help me achieve any of my yeses, I need to turn her down. This email both lets Beatrix know that it isn’t personal (see #5), and it offers a “can.”

Hi Beatrix,

Thank you so much for thinking of me for this leadership position! As much as I would enjoy heading up the neighborhood bake sale, due to other commitments, I’m currently unable to take on extra opportunities, even ones that sound as rewarding as this. Although I can’t be in charge, I’d still love to contribute a batch of cookies. As soon as you have details for the event, please let me know where I can drop them off.

Thanks!

Erin

If you would resent even baking a batch of cookies, pull out that response you crafted in #6. 

For the record: I don’t have a neighbor named Beatrix…at least not that I am aware of. If I do, but we haven’t met yet, Beatrix, I owe you a batch of cookies.


#8. Make your response clear.

A wishy-washy no can easily slip into a yes, especially if the person you are trying to turn down chooses to interpret it that way. Worse yet, a task that does eventually need to be completed (just not by you) could be missed entirely. Give your no firmly and politely, then move on. The person asking will move on too.


#9. Practice.

Whole Wheat Pie Crust

Saying no is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes practice. The first few times feel icky and squeamy. Your heart might pound after you hit send, and you will be tempted to call the person back right away and change your response to a yes. Don’t do it. Be confident in yourself and your ability to evaluate and choose the priorities in your own life.

After a while, the nos will come more easily. You won’t need that canned response. Saying no will actually feel good.


PHEW. OK, that was a lot longer than I thought it was going to be when I started typing.

The reason I wrote this post is that I’ve spent the last few years stretching myself too thin. I truly want to be better about prioritizing the things on which I spend my life’s most precious resource—time. I want more of those “things” to be people.

Philly Love

Again, a great-big credit and thank-you to Greg McKeown for writing Essentialism and inspiring many of these thoughts.

And a great big thank-you to YOU for putting up with those thoughts and making it to the bottom of this post. Your time is precious, and I am more grateful than I can say that you choose to spend it here. 

This post contains some affiliate links, which means that I make a small commission off items you purchase at no additional cost to you.

About Erin Clarke

I’m fearlessly dedicated to making healthy food taste incredible. Wearer of plaid, travel enthusiast, and firmly convinced that sweets and veggies both deserve a place at the table. MORE ABOUT ERIN…

19 comments

  1. Wish I would’ve read this about a million years ago – my daughter always used to tell her teachers at school “my mom doesn’t work so she’ll do it” (a stay at home mom doesn’t work?). But that being said, I usually did what I was volunteered for – all those field trips were so fun and interesting that I’m truly glad I didn’t have to say no very often. When my daughter was only in first grade, I became a girl scout leader for the 4th. through 6th. graders and I never regretted the experience…we did fun things like the weekend camping trip, baking, sewing (my specialty) and lots more that I can’t even remember. Being able to reasonably say no gives you a feeling of such freedom and the most important thing is not to say yes and resent that you did. P.S. Made the Mexican Stuffed Sweet Potato last night. Wasn’t sure about the egg at first but was very pleasantly surprised. I garnished with chopped cilantro and a small bit of Mexican cheese. Liked this dinner very much!

    • You hit the nail right on the head, Chris! It’s so important to be able to say “no,” especially if you’ll end up regretting you said “yes.” It sounds like the “yeses” you mention here led to some great experiences. Thanks for sharing! (And I’m so glad you enjoyed the stuffed sweet potatoes! Thank you!)

  2. You know I love this post! Saying no is my expertise, mostly because I have no other choice. If you ever need a NO cheerleader, I’m your girl.

    Except when it comes to money. I’m bad at saying no to that, as you know.

    PS: I’m reaching Essentialism too!
    PPS: #7 is my favorite — I use that all the time, it makes everyone happy!

  3. Erin – I love your blog! It is the only one I read because it is the perfect mix of interesting, practical, and fun. Thank you for all your hard work. I finally learned to say no just a couple years ago and it has made a big difference in my life. I used to volunteer for every opportunity at my boys’ schools Now I am very selective about what I volunteer for. I realized I was doing all these things to help the boys’ school and I wasn’t spending any actual time with my boys during most of the events. Now I assist only when it’s important to one of the boys AND I’ll get to enjoy them as well. You are right on about the “stepping back even for 24 seconds” technique! It does get easier and it’s a lot better than the regret of being taken up on a “throwaway” offer! Please keep the posts coming:)

    • Heather, thank YOU! I can’t adequately express how much it means to know that you read and enjoy my site. Thanks for sharing your experience too. It sounds like you’ve found a great balance!

  4. I’m a breast cancer survivor of 15 years and I learned to say no during that time. What I learned was to say make myself realize it wasn’t against the person asking, but it was FOR me. At that time in my life, I had to be FOR me with intention. Love this post. I think you are right on! I’m going to look up this book and thanks for mentioning it!

  5. Thank you for writing, especially this nugget:
    “The things that we don’t do, the ones to which we say no, define how we spend those hours just as much as the ones to which we say yes.”

    So wise!

  6. I am working on this now – the first few times I said “No” to projects I felt like I sounded like a brat.  I’m getting better – but I really need to work on a response that leaves the person feeling good about their interaction with me even if they got a no. I usually tell people no on the phone so it’s not as easy to sit and think about – there’s no crafting going on!   Great post!

    • Thank you so much for reading, Laura! That’s an good point about saying no on the phone sometimes so you don’t dwell on your response!

  7. I so agree’ ! I’m still working on my NO.

  8. This is such a AWESOME AWESOME post and a wonderful reminder to myself! It is amazing how easily and often I say yes to everything and then either a few hours later or a day later, I am thinking to myself why the hell did I say YES…I can’t do it. I don’t have the energy. And then I feel like I fail. But, that is going to change because it is time to LIVE LIFE. It is time to disconnect more often. It is time to enjoy what is around me…the small and BIG things! Cheers to this inspiring post and thanks for sharing! XOXO

    • Thank YOU for sharing as well! I really appreciate it. I’m so happy to hear it’s a helpful reminder and inspiration. You can do it!

  9. This is such a great topic! Thanks for sharing your insight. I have become much better at saying no over the last year and it feels SO GOOD! haha

  10. I can remember the days when I couldn’t say no.  When the time to fulfill the commitment came, I would become a no-show.  Not a good way to deal with it.  And I still had all the guilt and anxiety to go with the event.  The advice about waiting 24 hours is really excellent.  The urgency really diminishes.  (It also works for impulse shopping.)  I don’t know how I managed to get to where I could say no, but I’m glad that I learned it.  Perhaps I learned it by getting to know myself better; that is a huge help in evaluating what I want to do.

    • I think knowing yourself and your limits is key. (And absolutely true for impulse shopping too.) Thanks for chiming in, Susan!

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