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Getting to No You

You’ve decided you need to say no. To new volunteer obligations. Impositions on your privacy. Visits from relatives. Extra projects at work. Co-workers who crowd you. Whatever. (Maybe even to government, but more about that another time.)

But somehow no never quite ends up meaning no. Because this request for your time is so vital. And that request is just one small thing. And because it’s easier to just do it than to put all that energy into refusing again

Real change has to begin with an ultimatum to yourself: No means no. No exceptions. No special cases. Above all no “Just this one time, please?” No. Means. No.

Because the first time you make an exception, you are dead. After that, everybody knows they can get what they want from you. And worse, you know you won’t stop them.

If you haven’t given yourself an ultimatum even stronger than the ones you’ve probably been trying to give other people, you’re doomed. You might say no once. You might say no twice, but in the long run “Just this one time, please?” is going to win because you haven’t effectively said “no means no” to yourself.

I know this. I am an expert in this subject. I have a Ph.D. in the field from long years of failure.


I’m hoping the failure to get to no is like quitting smoking, where I hear it takes some unholy average like seven attempts before the typical would-be quitter finally makes it. And even after that, you still feel the urge. But you don’t give in.

It better be like that — with potential for success even after many let-downs. Because otherwise life becomes the psychological equivalent of a hacking, gasping, hawking mess.

I never had trouble with cigarettes. I have lots of trouble with no.


This week, several people crossed my boundaries. Or tried to. I haven’t yielded. Yet just the irritation and frustration I feel has been a form of “letting them in.” I blame those people. And it’s true that they’re 100% responsible for their own actions. But I am far, far, far more to blame than they.

Saying yes when we ought to say no — or worse, saying yes when we’ve already said no but don’t have the gumption to hold our line — makes us like junkies who just can’t resist the fix. Except that unlike the junkie in the gutter of society, we “can’t say no” people get rewards. We get paid (sometimes) and we get perks and we get plaques and we get introduced and applauded during fundraising dinners. Yes, rewards.

To. A. Point.

Unfortunately, we “can’t say no” people usually end up somewhere in the bottom-middle or middle-bottom of whatever field we’re in. Because we don’t allow ourselves the ego-time to dream. To dream, dive fully into things, and work our buns off on our own priorities.

Again, it’s our own doing when we don’t reserve self-time. But how dare all those people keep trying to pull us off our path? To pull us past our very own (repeated) declarations of NO so we can serve their priorities? Why don’t they hear us the first time? Or the second? Or the third? Why do they put us in the position where we’re the bad guys if we don’t go along — again — with what they want?

Oh, but the needs are urgent! The causes profound! (And they often really are; charity being the natural profession for this sort of importuning.) You’re the only one who can do it! Your talents are so vital! And after all, “It’s just this one time …”

But the implication — and this is really weird when you think about it — the implication is that you’re so good (or so irreplaceable or so uniquely talented or such an excellent organizer or such a good guy) that YOU DON’T COUNT.

You’re so very, very special that you ought to give up your own priorities in favor of everybody else’s needs.

And that’s a hellova thing. Think about it. A HELL of a thing.


But that sounds positively Randian, which isn’t right. You’d be wrong to start envisioning people named Mouch and Starnes. It’s not just whiny “second handers” who pressure you to give up your own priorities for theirs. On the contrary, many of those who constantly try to push us past our own nos are major doers themselves. They’re achievers in part because are driven, have a vision, or just love what they do — and think you should go along. All of which contributes to how hard it is to say no to them.

But “no we must.”

Ron Johnson commented the other day:

I recently read that highly effective people have one trait: they control their time. They have a routine from which they don’t vary, and they do NOT allow interruptions or unscheduled visits. They say NO a lot.

I started doing that at the office. No more drop-by’s allowed. No more suppliers getting a meeting on their schedule. No more picking up the phone just because it rings. No, I say, not now. Get on my schedule when I’m ready for you.

It has transformed my ability to get things done, and it has lowered my stress considerably.

Smart man. And smart not only for the business world, but for capital-L Life.


Of course there’s that thing beyond NO that’s troublesome. Once you decree your life, your work, and your time to belong to you, you’re obligated to make something of them.

If you’re already doing a job that’s well-defined, all you have to do is do the job better or more efficiently once you’ve gotten to NO. That’s doable. But if you’re decreeing time and space for priorities you set — that novel you want to write, that cabin you want to build, those college courses, that extra quality time you want to spend with your family, that business you intend to start, that backpacking trip through South America you’ve always said you wanted to take …

Well, there be dragons.

There be the possibilities of failure. Of not being good enough. Not having the right “inspiration.” Of just being “lazy.” Of not following through for whatever reason. Of being “undisciplined.” Of FAILING — and now having only yourself to blame.

Oh, now it would be nice to have some of those other people around to pin things on!

Even if you have no great ambitions but simply want more time to read books, gaze out the window, and pet the cat, it becomes your sole obligation to savor every minute of it and not get distracted by your own little monkey-brainedness or old fears, grievances, and struggles that have a hold on your mind.

When you don’t write the novel, build the cabin, or enjoy all that cat petting as you expected to you have to face yourself and ask, “Is this thing I keep saying I want what I really do want? If it’s not, then what do I want, instead? And if it is what I want, then why aren’t I doing it?”

Dragons, indeed.


  1. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal June 26, 2014 5:19 am

    And sometimes you have to say “yes” to a lot of things you don’t think you want in order to find the thing to say “no” for.

    I have found some experiences I never know I would love just because I said “yes” to something I wasn’t really comfortable with. Blogging and karaoke being two examples right off the top of my head.

  2. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 26, 2014 6:02 am

    I have not generally had much trouble saying “no” when it was important to me. After all, I raised two boys and had a successful career in nursing, which requires a high degree of prioritizing tasks and goals. But there be dragons of all sorts.

    My last job was as clinical supervisor for a team of hospice professionals. Corporate dictated an “open door” policy, and in the early days the time I spent in the office was often only marginally productive because I had little choice but to be interrupted from time to time as team members came in with their problems, gripes and excuses.

    Then I thought of a partial “work around.” It was not popular with my boss, at first, but it helped a lot. And, actually, it helped my team and other co-workers. Eventually, the other supervisors adopted a similar system.

    Unless it was a real emergency, everyone was asked to put their problem, gripe or whatever in writing and leave it in my “in box” for consideration. These people were used to documenting everything anyway, so this was not a departure from the norm. It helped them to think about what they wanted to say, and organize their facts far better than any oral, off the cuff presentation. It also gave us a record of these things, rather than imperfect memory of the facts.

    This actually started because I was out of the office a lot, and needed a way to receive my team’s concerns without having them call my cell for every hangnail. And my ability to say “no” without being harsh or hasty quickly helped them sort the urgent from the mundane. If their concern was truly urgent, they knew I was there for them 100%.

    So, even now, when people ask me to do something, support something, whatever… unless it is a true emergency, I ask them to put their proposal into writing of some sort. I need to know what they are actually asking me to do, to commit to, and I figure if they can’t be bothered to do that they are not really that interested in my participation. And this is especially true of those who call me on the telephone, since I can’t understand what they are saying well enough to have sufficient information to make a decision.

    I think it is very important to be able to say “no” when necessary. I just don’t want to do so in an arbitrary manner that shuts off opportunities. I’ve gained a great deal from saying “yes” in my life, but it has always been my choice.

  3. Ted Dunlap
    Ted Dunlap June 26, 2014 6:59 am

    Once again, Claire, you make a solid hit to my solar plexis… or upside my head, I suppose is more accurate. Nice job, making me think, but what do I think?
    Who am I?
    What DO I want?
    Of course I am saving the world, but WHICH of my crusades is IT?
    Which one of my “I can do it” roles is THE ONE?
    Gosh, which ones can I let die without risk; without real loss?

    Where does my trombone fit? Learning the bass? Retarding my joint calcification with yoga? All that shooting practice I want to do? Getting my HF radio up and running? Finishing my shelving/cabinet work?

    Crap! I could say NO to everyone else for a month and still … still what? Say NO to me??? What is the order I would put them in if I served nobody else?

    There is a germ of an idea; a vague outline of a way to answer that in the fog of my brain. I think it is an important question to answer.

    Yeah, that’s it. Just as soon as I get through this Field Day weekend as President of the local HAM club.

  4. Pat
    Pat June 26, 2014 8:44 am

    “But how dare all those people keep trying to pull us off our path? To pull us past our very own (repeated) declarations of NO so we can serve their priorities?”

    Some of not saying No is because we _want_ to do it the first time. Once Yes is said, from THEIR point of view it opens the very real possibility that we may like doing it and want to repeat. So they continue to ask, demand, or seek us out. (Not meaning to excuse their nagging; granted, much of the time they do try to manipulate us into doing what they want.)

    I’ve never felt obligated to explain/rationalize _to myself_ why something was or wasn’t done as planned. If consequences of my No or other circumstances alter my course of action, then I alter plans and re-evaluate accordingly. But it no longer relates to the original decision to say Yes or No.

    Related, but on another tack: An old Chinese proverb says, “Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” If “growing slowly” means changing course or re-prioritizing until you get it right ― for YOU, the individual ― then you’re on the right course no matter where it leads or how long it takes. No justification is needed for a change of plans.

  5. Claire
    Claire June 26, 2014 9:23 am

    Great responses — as usual. 🙂

    And Kent, of course you’re right that sometimes it’s a great thing to try something you fear or don’t really think you’d enjoy. Absolutely. I’m talking only about those circumstances where people keep pressing you to do something for their benefit — and it’s something you’ve already said you don’t want to do (usually because you’ve previously done it and done it and done it to the point where you finally were driven to erect a wall).

    And Ted … yeah. I hear ya on overcommitment (even to things you really love). You had me laughing while I groaned.

  6. Victor Milán
    Victor Milán June 26, 2014 11:24 am

    For me, “no” represents a key exercise in learning to practice self-ownership, rather than simply holding it as an abstract principle.

    One thing I started doing a couple years ago was simply saying “no” when I meant it. And not explaining or justifying that.

    If someone catches me answering the door and asks for something – usually a signature, or a few moments of my time – I say, “no,” and close the door.

    I was taught that’s impolite. It struck me, belatedly, to ask why? I have given them their answer. Why would it be polite to waste their time as well as my own with further interaction?

    Besides, what kept me from handling things so simply in the past wasn’t “politeness” at all. It was fear – fear that my decision might somehow be second-guessed or criticized. So in trying to justify my answer – which was in fact sufficient – I’d really be trying to justify myself. First of all, to myself.

    I’ll also point out that experienced hustlers of all sorts know this behavior well, and capitalize on it. Once they get you talking, they have a chance of talking you out of it. And it’s for their own selfish benefit, as much if they’re asking you to volunteer for something they want you you do as if they’re asking for your pin number for Jesus.

    The reason, which I may give if asked and I’m feeling generous, is, “Because I choose not to.” Which as far as I’m concerned ends the issue. I hear no debate, much less offer any.

    If I’m dealing with someone with whom I have an actual relationship – friendship or business – I generally will offer some explanation. Because I feel such people have earned more information, as part of our continuous, unmetered value-for-value exchange.

    Kent of course is right that saying “yes,” even to things that don’t initially appeal, can be important and satisfying. The key is making sure it is your choice, and your reasons – even if it’s to help a friend when you don’t feel like it, because you value that friend and their friendship. Not because you were too weak to say “no.”

    So I recommend that as a habit-rewriting exercise: even if it initially seems abrupt and impolite, if you mean no, say no. And then – well, we all know the catchphrase, don’t we?

  7. Curt S
    Curt S June 26, 2014 12:47 pm

    I dunno….I guess it really boils down to an individual’s make up. Believe ot or npt I am basically a kind hearted person. However, I can also be someone’s worst nightmare. Over the years I have been a plant forman for a smelting furnace manufacture company. the honcho for a security company where it was my job to supply guards to over 50 clients. And have spent over 16 years in the military both active and reserve. I have given my background so folks know where I am coming from in my remarks here. Number one is do not let your job or position run you, you run it. Number two is if you are soft people will take advantage of that. I am lucky to have a stern and at times an intimidating face. Try to develope one. Number three is never be afraid to snarl. this being polite or what today maybe called “PC” is for the birds. Yes, one has to be somewhat polite…we were all raised to be that, BUT that does not mean you ALWAYS have to be. I personally do not get involves with organizations that might require me to “volunteer”. Maybe some might consider me selfish in that respect. So What!!! I could care less. I don’t need to be the center of attention or be surrounded by a hoard of people. To be honest most of the time I prefer to be a lone wolf.

  8. naturegirl
    naturegirl June 26, 2014 1:40 pm

    Ha!, you’re reading minds again, Claire. I have real issues with not only saying no, but backing my no-s up when I do manage to say no. I can only speak for myself in explaining it, but I have noticed the patterns among people who’ve had rough childhoods, there’s a multitude of guilt (and maybe even some fear) attached to that word (and all it implies). The older I get, the better at using that word gets; and I’ve even gotten to the point where I don’t explain why I said no anymore, either. I’ve learned to not mind trick myself when I do say it, and I’ve learned to not worry about the consequences that could result. Maybe it took getting tired, worn out and empty, or reaching a point where there’s nothing to lose so yeah who cares (LOL) and all of that – but saying no without overthinking it comes a lot easier than it use to. I will probably always connect it to self esteem stuff, even when I know better; because it’s amazing how quick it takes to learn how to do things that aren’t helpful to our souls then it is to unlearn em.

  9. MJR
    MJR June 26, 2014 3:11 pm

    Organizations and plain folks who want just a little bit of my time… Work where the supervisor wants a few minutes after the day has ended or the shift has not started… The friend who needs a hand doing whatever… I learned a long time ago that these are all leaches who would feast upon my time and that there are only so many days in one’s life.

    Over the years I have made saying no into an art when the cause is not worthwhile to me. Mind you I don’t say no as much as I should with family and close friends because there have been times that without their help all would have been lost.

    As R A Heinlein wrote…

    Do not confuse “duty” with what other people expect of you; they are utterly different. Duty is a debt you owe to yourself to fulfill obligations you have assumed voluntarily. Paying that debt can entail anything from years of patient work to instant willingness to die. Difficult it may be, but the reward is self-respect.

    But there is no reward at all for doing what other people expect of you, and to do so is not merely difficult, but impossible. It is easier to deal with a footpad than it is with the leech who wants “just a few minutes of your time, please — this won’t take long.” Time is your total capital, and the minutes of your life are painfully few. If you allow yourself to fall into the vice of agreeing to such requests, they quickly snowball to the point where these parasites will use up 100 percent of your time — and squawk for more!

    So learn to say No — and to be rude about it when necessary. Otherwise you will not have time to carry out your duty, or to do your own work, and certainly no time for love and happiness. The termites will nibble away your life and leave none of it for you.
    (This rule does not mean that you must not do a favor for a friend, or even a stranger. But let the choice be yours. Don’t do it because it is “expected” of you.)

  10. pediem
    pediem June 26, 2014 7:58 pm

    Having your doctor tell you that you -must- start sleeping more and stressing less is one good (or perhaps very bad) way of learning to say “NO”.

    With the job that I do, stress is constant when I’m at work. Being an ER doc isn’t for the faint of heart, and a shift is full of constant decision-making, sometimes quite literally to save a life.

    But I’ve now had to tell my boss that I’m not available for meetings when I should be sleeping, that I cannot come in for extra committees, that I will not be doing extra projects for the foreseeable future, and that she can no longer count on me to pick up moonlighting whenever it’s available.

    I’ve had to learn to reset my priorities, the hard way. I wish I’d learned it long ago.

  11. MikeG
    MikeG June 27, 2014 10:34 am

    Just started our own “NO” campaign recently. Wife and I have operated a childcare from our home now for going on 20 years. We have taken pride in the fact that we were open early and closed “whenever.” It has kept us busy. Busier than we would like for quite a while now. Just had one family leave that had us opening our door a 3:30 a.m. If you call and ask for that schedule again, the answer is “NO.” We have one girl who is here every other Saturday. As soon as she ages out, don’t ask me for another Saturday. (Just had a lady call and ask if we would take on her kids on every Saturday because her present childcare will not. She won’t switch to us for the week days. Just wants us for Saturdays. HELL no! A friend of mine reminded me once that a guy only has son many Saturdays left. That was several years ago. The supply is even smaller now.

  12. Betsey
    Betsey June 27, 2014 10:45 am

    I learned early to say no and not justify myself. People learned that when I said it, I meant it.
    And the freedom! I learned to “indulge my introvert.”

  13. Matt, another
    Matt, another June 27, 2014 2:37 pm

    The hardest thing I had to do was teach my wife that she did not have authority to commit my time or resources to other people, which includes family, friends and neighbors. Caused a lot of problems initially, took a couple years for her to understand that it was courtesy to ask if I was willing to do X, Y, or Z. The concession I had to make was not to volunteer to help the good looking single female neighbors without prior clearance. Then, I had to work on not committing my adult children to doing things either. Mostly social requirements such as other family birthdays, holidays etc. I explained to the kids that they were adults and could say no about attendance if they wished. Now they show up if they want to, but when they commit they always show. Good, free food at the holidays helps a lot.

    One of the things that helps me say no is an utter lack of social skills, I really did not lean the “rules” that so many in society seem to rely on. I don’t know why a person “should” help someone or not help them. If I feel like it I do it, if I don’t I don’t. If I want to help someone, but they don’t want help from “my” kind of person I have learned to let it and them go. But, there are still a few people, that when they call, no matter what it is, I am on my way.

  14. Dick Summers
    Dick Summers June 27, 2014 4:11 pm

    Mmmm… This reminds me of Carlos Castaneda and Don Juan Matus talking about personal power. It might have been ‘Journey to Ixtlan’. It’s been forty years since I last read it and this may be the first time I’ve been reminded of it.

  15. ENthePeasant
    ENthePeasant June 28, 2014 1:26 am

    Hard to identify with any of this so I’ve been cautious about joining in. People don’t naturally come to me. It’s known there’s a bit of a the smartass running through my personality, but can every easily go into sarcastic contempt when someone crosses a line… and even ex wives got that treatment. I’m good at working alone and not letting people interfere and in the end delivering honest opinions based on fact but not afraid to add intuition although that’s always stated. Where this is going is it all comes down to personality. If you’re the kind of person who delivers it’s easier, but never allow yourself to be put upon, especially when you have a lot to do. But who hasn’t seen that one person whose hair’s on fire and people are always coming to them believing they can handle more work. Don’t be that person for sure. Good article from the Guardian.

  16. Pat
    Pat June 28, 2014 3:25 am

    In the Daily Mail article: You could also say that “haters” are focused whereas “likers” are unfocused.

    I don’t care for the “haters-likers” terminology; they’re just words the study chooses to define a particular way ― but in doing so, the words themselves become negative―positive labeling. Surely the researchers could have come up with better labels that “like” and “hate”.

    In any case, in the realm of survival a jack-of-all-trades may be a master-of-all, according to Heinlein, who thought we should know how to do many things, rather than specialize.

  17. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty June 28, 2014 5:29 am

    There’s room for all kinds of people in the world, of course… generalists and specialists. I’d really rather that my brain surgeon be a specialist… 🙂

    I’ve found that I can do several things really well, if I dedicate myself to excellence… or I can do a hundred things more or less ok. I can be a “specialist” in the few tasks that matter the most, and a generalist for everything else I find time to do.

    Depends on what you need to do, I think.

  18. Karen
    Karen June 28, 2014 6:36 am

    One of the biggest reliefs of my life was when I came to the realization that all those burdonsome expectations other people overwhelmed me with were really mostly my own expectations I was placing on myself.

    No one else expected me to spend weeks baking dozens and dozens of cookies and breads to give away at Christmas. No one else expected me to jump up and drive an hour when the place I volunteer was shorthanded. No one else expected me to actually solve their problems when they called just to vent.

    In a way, it was a bit of my ego insisting that I really was the one and only one best suited to do whatever. It was partly a belief in that old adage that if you want something done right you must do it yourself. On the rare occaisions that I was truly physically unable to agree to do something I discovered that it managed to get done without me. It might not have been as well done as I’d have liked, but it was done.

    At 63 years old I’ve gotten better, but still haven’t totally mastered the art of a resounding no. I’m currently feeling under seige by some cousins I haven’t seen or spoken to for 10-50 years. DH got himself a f@ceb**k page in order to read some economist or philosopher who only published his work there and damned if the floodgates haven’t opened. So I”ve been mentally spinning trying to think of kinder gentler ways of saying that if I was interested in them I’d have kept in touch, not moved 1500 miles away, and I really don’t care what they’re up to these days. But there again, I’m the one mentally spinning when I could just tell myself no and go on to ignore the whole mess. Hopefully I’ll get to that ignoring the whole mess in short order.

    Guess the whole world is in the same dilema to some extent or other.

  19. Jackie Juntti
    Jackie Juntti June 28, 2014 7:54 am

    I am so glad I learned early in my life this simple but powerful verse:
    Matt. 5:37 But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

    People have called me all kinds of names for my refusal to bend or bow to their demands of my thoughts or time or how I do things. That has never bothered me as I also learned about sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.

  20. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau June 28, 2014 8:35 am

    I don’t really relate to this one very much, maybe because I have never had much problem saying no so it wasn’t a big deal. In fact some times it is a pleasure to say no, to disappoint some idiot! 🙂 That’s not to say I don’t get sidetracked; I frequently do, but it is always my choice.

    I do avoid saying no to my wife at times, to avoid argument; but instead simply don’t do what she has in mind for me to do until she notices and does it herself, or forgets about it. Most of the time I go along with her though; that’s just give and take…

  21. Ellendra
    Ellendra June 28, 2014 12:42 pm

    I come from a family where a decisive answer is considered a sin. Add a lack of social skills on top of that, and thing get messy fast.

    Learning to say no was the first step, I’ve got that. Learning to deal with the endless guilt-trips, backstabbing, outright lies, and worse! that the more passive-aggressive members of my family resort to when I don’t behave the way they want me to? That I’m still figuring out.

    The “and worse” has gotten to the point where I’m collecting evidence.

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