Learn to Say No And Reserve Your Mental Energy

Justin wrote this comment on my post Ask the Readers: What Productivity-Related Problem Do You Have? :

I’ve found that not getting things done is sometimes almost as important as getting things done in productivity. When people request too much of me, I have a hard time telling them no without killing the relationship. Yet if I say yes to everything, I only hinder my productivity with work overload.

Learn to say no It’s a situation I believe many of us face. People give their requests to us and we aren’t able to say no because of fear that saying no will ruin our relationships with them. Eventually that makes us feel overwhelmed. But, as Justin said above, not getting things done is sometimes just as important as getting things done. In fact, I think that it is equally important.

Not getting the wrong things done is just as important as getting the right things done. Of course, it’s up to you to classify something as the right or the wrong thing to do. But once you decide that something is wrong to do, you should not get it done and not even work on it in the first place. That ensures that you have the time and energy to get the right things done and done right. Reserve your mental energy and don’t waste your resources on something that will give you nothing in the end. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you should be selfish and not help others. What I mean is you shouldn’t help others in a way that will harm yourself.

How can we decide whether or not something is right to do? Here are two questions to help you decide:

  • Does it help you reach your goal in one way or another?
  • Do you have the capacity (time and energy) to handle it?

If your answers to both questions are no, then most likely is it’s not worth doing. The second question is especially important if the request is unrelated to your goals (which could happen pretty often).

For requests you think you shouldn’t do, you should learn to say no without feeling guilty. Some people may try to make you feel guilty if you don’t comply with their request, but don’t fall into the trap. If you know you’re right, you should be confident with yourself. Say no, give them the reason if necessary, and don’t apologize.

Here are three reasons why it’s important to learn to say no:

1. Other people should have realistic expectations about you

One reason people give their requests to you is because they have unrealistic expectations about you. They may think that you have large capacity to handle more requests while in fact you aren’t. Your saying yes will only worsen the situation. If you say yes, people around you will continue to have wrong expectations. It’s your job to let them know that your capacity is limited.

2. You can’t please everybody

Perhaps you are afraid that you will ruin your relationships if you say no. But the fact is no matter how kind you try to be some people may still resent toward you. While it’s important that other people have realistic expectation about you, it’s equally important that you have realistic expectation about yourself. There is no way you can please everybody. Trying to do so will only drain your time and mental energy.

3. Your self worth is not determined by your performance

If you think that you are worthy because you meet people’s requests, you need to change your mindset. Your performance doesn’t determine your self worth. You are worthy because of who you are and not because of what you do. So don’t fall into the trap of trying to meet everyone’s expectation. Even if they say something negative about you, understand that your self worth is not determined by it. You can still feel good about yourself no matter what other people say.

***

Learning to say no is essential to reserve your mental energy and be productive. Do you have tips or thoughts about it? Feel free to share them in the comments.

This article is part of June 2008 theme: Productivity

Photo by Jeronimo Palacios

12 Comments

  1. Usually I don’t have trouble saying ‘no’, but rather deciding where I personally want to say yes.

    I want to achieve so many things in the course of my college years, that it’s hard to decide what extra curricular activities I should engage in.

    Then again, time and life is a limited resource and certain levels of focus just become necessary.

  2. Great tips Donald, thanks for answering my question.

    In retrospect, I suppose I harm the relationship even worse if I promise to do something I really cannot reasonably do. Then I’ve overpromised and underdelivered.

  3. Donald,

    “learn to say no without feeling guilty” — This is something I should definitely work-on. The moment when people come to me for help (whether it is something I should be doing or not), I feel compelled to help and I have trouble saying ‘no’.

    Very good post.

    – Ramesh | The Geek Stuff –

  4. Not sure if I read about learning to say no also at your site but internet is full of such articles: http://www.google.com/search?q=%22learn+to+say+no%22

    This should not mean that your article is not worth being read – I also often have to get reminded that saying “no” is an important option.

    However I tried that in the past with bad effects. You can imagine that for an average employee there are a few levels of management above him where no one accepts a “no”.

    I completely agree with your point 1 and I try to do better explanation why and how to say “no”. However, you cannot really change other people’s (maybe bosses and managers in most cases) impatience.

  5. This is such a hard one!

    I’ve summarized the saying “No” process on my Learning How to Say No post:
    http://www.definingsomeday.com/?p=47

  6. Arjun,

    Usually I don’t have trouble saying ‘no’, but rather deciding where I personally want to say yes.

    I think this is where our life purpose is important. Our life purpose can help us decide whether or not something is relevant for us. This way we won’t waste our resources on things that are actually not for us. Of course, finding the purpose takes time but it’s time well spent.

    Justin,
    Overpromising and underdelivering is a problem I experienced myself. I was so eager to try many things I didn’t realize that I couldn’t handle them all. I’ve been more careful since then.

    Ramesh,
    This is also something I’m learning. The desire to help people is good, but underdelivering because of our limited capacity may be harmful to our relationships (as Justin said).

    Martin,
    Yes, it’s not easy to say no in such cases. My work gives me the freedom to accept or deny most requests, but many people have different circumstances. Setting the expectations right is perhaps the best thing we can do.

    Elle,
    Thanks for the information!

  7. @Martin

    I empathize with you. Such bosses/managers are difficult to work with.

    Some techniques which work while dealing with bosses and managers who do not accept a “no”
    1. Inform them before picking up whatever new task they are assigning what task is going to be affected and how.
    2. Pass the ball in their court – Ask them to prioritize tasks since both cannot be done at the same time. Make them take a decision.
    3. Keep a time log of your daily tasks. This comes really handy when after attending weeks of meetings managers ask us what did we do all the time.

    I am sure there must be more methods of managing people than these.

  8. Avani,
    Those are very good ideas! They indirectly inform the boss that the way she does things has negative consequences she should be responsible for.

  9. Okay, someone’s trying to tell me something here! This is the second post today I’ve read on learning how to say no. The first one was at Shelley Anderson’s blog. I’d been reading her book Dealing with Divas on how to deal with a pushy boss, and decided to check out her site as well. I always have a hard time saying no, and most of the time I end up being upset with the person I say yes to no matter who it is, as well as myself for not being able so stand my ground in the first place.

  10. Ruth,
    Learning to say no is indeed an important lesson. The book you mentioned sounds interesting by the way.

  11. […] 19. Learn to say “no”. “Not getting the wrong things done is just as important as getting the right things done. Of course, it’s up to you to classify something as the right or the wrong thing to do. But once you decide that something is wrong to do, you should not get it done and not even work on it in the first place. That ensures that you have the time and energy to get the right things done and done right. Reserve your mental energy and don’t waste your resources on something that will give you nothing in the end. Of course, it doesn’t mean that you should be selfish and not help others. What I mean is you shouldn’t help others in a way that will harm yourself.” — Donald Latumahina, Life Optimizer […]

  12. “No” can only be said by someone who has the power of saying “Yes” and its absolutely situational.

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