The Subtle Art Of Saying No

Have you ever just felt like your life is constantly spinning out of control? One commitment leading to the next until you seemingly have little or no time for yourself?! The truth is, many of us feel exactly the same way! Our days are filled to over flowing and we feel exhausted from the weight of our responsibilities. So, we have ask ourselves “why”? Why do so many of us struggle with the demands of our lives?

Have you ever thought about how hard it is to say the word “no”? Especially when someone at work politely asks you to be on a committee; or people in your personal life come to ask for a favour or assistance. If we were to be honest with ourselves many of us can’t stop ourselves from saying yes. Even when we have hesitation in our hearts, more often than not we agree to help.

The question I’ve asked myself over the years is why did I commit to something that I had hesitations about? The answer, I have come to realize, is that I felt honoured, needed and respected when I was asked to help. Being asked to help gave me a personal level of gratification and sense of feeling good about myself. The truth is, for many of us it feels good to be needed. That’s what I realized about myself. I’m a giver – and it felt good to have people ask for my help, need my help, and to be able to provide my help. There was great satisfaction in that. The problem was, I was consistently over-committing myself, as many of us do. All the while I was over-committing myself, I was regretting my over-commitments and in many cases I suspect I was not as successful as I wanted to be with the commitments I agreed to.

It’s taken decades for me to realize this about myself. For the last several years I have learned to not over-commit my time and, in curbing over-committing, I have been more successful in the commitments I do make and happier in my life. Here are four things that I have learned along the way that have helped me to stay within myself.

1. Your goals for you vs others’ goals for you!

My goals, by definition, are more important to me than the goals of other people or organizations. To say that is not selfish, mean, or something I feel I should feel bad about. It’s a reality in my life and a place I came to when I realized that the more successful, happy and motivated I was, the more I was able to pass on some of that to other people. Grumpy, unhappy, over-extended and completely dissatisfied people spend valuable time bouncing from opportunity to opportunity without the ability to truly help anyone including themselves successful.

I travel a lot and when you are in an airplane, the rule of thumb is that in the case of an emergency, you are to put your mask on before assisting others. If you pass out from a lack of oxygen while trying to put on someone else’s mask, you are not helping them, or yourself.

In my mind the same tactic is equally important to achieve my best productivity and success. Focusing on me first allows me to be on top of my game and once I have me functioning at a high level then I have extra positive energy to spare and share with everyone around me. If I don’t focus on ensuring “I’m good” then I won’t have enough positive energy to be successful myself let alone help others.

2. Help create good habits in others!

Have you ever had something like this happen to you? You haven’t been in your email for a few hours and when you open your inbox you see two consecutive messages from the same person. #1 says “I need your help with X” and #2, sent a few hours after the first one, saying “no worries, I got it figured out”.

What happened?

Because you were not there to help that person, they figured out how to do it on their own.

This happens quite often to me. At first sight of a challenge many people start reaching out for help before they even try to resolve the issue themselves. Sometimes, they need the help and cannot solve the problem on their own. But many times, they could easily have solved the issue for themselves but they take the easy way out instead of trying to make it on their own.

The fact is, self-reliance is one of the biggest keys to productivity.

Self-reliance is the only road to true freedom. And being one’s own person is the ultimate reward. ~ Patricia Sampson

Not being so “available” for other people, in an odd way, teaches them the habit of self-reliance. Encouraging them to try to figure things out on their own, often sets them on their road to self-reliance and freedom.

Self-reliance is key to success and saying “no” more often, helps everyone around you develop this productive habit. Saying “no” can help a person far more than saying “yes”.

3. GOOD or GREAT…it’s up to you!

I’ve come to realize that there is a big difference between participating in something that I CAN do versus something that I am truly GREAT at (or enjoy to a great extent). I’ve made a commitment to myself that most of my time should be spent in the “great” category. I feel as though I should only say “yes” to something that I know I can excel at, or at least be very happy doing. Saying “yes” to something you are not passionate about or interested in typically means those you are helping can’t expect greatness in your effort. My belief is that if I cannot do an extremely good job of what I am committing to do then I should have honestly said “no” and get back to focusing on what I am good at or passionate about.

Mastery of a few skills over mediocrity in many. That is the name of the productivity game. Learning to say “no” when you may be out of your skill and passion zone, even when it’s a worthy cause or effort, allows you to say “yes” to great things you are able to powerfully succeed in, and help others succeed at high levels as well.

4. No bad feelings!

I’ve realized that if I keep accepting every opportunity, or request for help, that comes my way, I might not have any resources left to help myself.

Spending large portions of my days and weeks bouncing from opportunity to opportunity helping others takes time and energy away from what I do and the things I am passionate about. I’ve found at times I look back at my day or week, and realize I’ve helped many people with their things and I’m behind in the things I need to get done or I’ve neglected the people and initiatives I am passionate about. Nothing is worse than having a lot to do and realizing your personal gas tank is empty and you aren’t any closer to achieving your own goals. Realizations like this help foster negative feelings that you can start associating with the people you have helped and make you angry and frustrated towards yourself.

It’s up to you!

Helping other people and organizations should absolutely be an important focus for all of us. Using our talents and passions to help make the world a better place is the right thing to do – and I’d encourage all of us to find those people and organizations in need that fit within the skill sets and serve them!


It should be done on your terms, and don’t risk compromising your own success and productivity.

Saying “no” is not a bad or selfish action. It helps you concentrate on what it important to you so you can achieve your best success.

Saying “no” will also help everyone around you develop and solidify the incredibly important habit of self-reliance. It will also help you avoid the negative feeling of lack of progress, or even worse, one of feeling not in control of your own life.

Learn to say “no” more often, your productivity and success will thank you for it.

Tom Watson

As seen on