Learn how to say no

Every January I make 5 or 6 New Year’s Resolutions. I know the odds are against me, that they’re statistically designed to fail and that by the time March rolls around, they’re usually a distant memory. But I make them anyway and I do it with enthusiasm. For most of my adult life, my resolutions have centered on doing more of something – exercise more, eat more vegetables, floss more often, check off more items on my to-do list. This year, for the first time, I resolved to do less. I have only one resolution this year and it’s a biggie  – Learn how to say no!

I’ve had difficulty saying no my whole life but I only started viewing it as a problem in the last few years. I suppose I was raised to say yes – to be the reliable one, the one who comes through when everyone else bails, the girlfriend you can always count on.  When I started my first real job, my dad told me to “be the first one in and the last to leave and say yes to everything”. I followed his advice and I must admit it served me well. I’ve had a great career which included becoming a senior vice president in my 30s and running my own business for almost a decade. Dad’s advice was great for career development but it gets a failing grade for setting boundaries.

As I reflect on the past 20 years, there were so many times  I said yes when I meant no. Long dinners I’ve had with people I loathe, one-hour coffee dates with people who just wanted to “pick my brain”, entire Saturdays spent watching someone try on wedding dresses and late Friday nights in the office tweaking PowerPoint presentations long after my colleagues have gone home.  So, why did I say yes to so many things I obviously didn’t want to do? The usual reasons: I was pressured or bullied by well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) friends. I was afraid to hurt someone’s feelings. I felt obligated to do a certain thing by some kind of implied girlfriend code, wife code or parent code. But mostly, it was because I knew that if I didn’t do it, no one else would or no one else could.

To arm myself with the tools to say no I bought a book, Why Your Life Sucks by Alan Cohen. My life doesn’t suck; far from it. But the no-bullshit title promised a fast track to freedom. The book has taught me that I sometimes give my power away, I waste my energy on things I don’t believe in, I always try to prove myself and I have a saviour complex. Yikes!

I decided to try something. Each time someone asked me to do something, I would silently ask myself, “When it comes time to actually do this, how will I feel?” If the answer was angry, resentful, bitter, annoyed, depleted or anything else in that ballpark of emotions,  I would say no immediately and stand my ground. If people balked at my response, I would politely say, “I know you’ve always been able to count on me to help with this but in 2015, I’m learning to set healthy boundaries.”  This usually ended the conversation.

After a few weeks of saying no to pretty much every request that came my way, I realized that life is full of things we don’t really want to do but which have a positive payoff. I don’t want to fold laundry, lift weights, drive my kids to swimming lessons or sit through another unnecessary meeting at work.  But I realize the value of clean clothes, toned thighs, kids who won’t drown and a regular paycheque.

It’s the other things I’m talking about. The things that eat into my precious free time but aren’t necessary and have a negligible payoff. The things that can be dropped and won’t be missed and the extra time I’ll have to do things I really enjoy, like writing this blog regularly.

As Alan Cohen says, “Every no is a yes to something else”. In my case, it’s having time to write regular blog posts.






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