To achieve anything meaningful in life you must recognise the cost behind each decision; learning to embrace saying ‘no’ to The World, Other People and even Yourself.  

‘No’ Is The Most Useful Tool You’ll Need In Life

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet

Most people will rarely say ‘no’ to requests for their time, energy and attention, and simply allow external influences or validation of the world’s needs to guide them. 

However, life is short and there is a limit to the time, energy and attention you can give. 

It is imperative that you decide for yourself how you are going to spend your life, or else risk your life run away before you and with unmet goals and dreams.

Figuring out what is important to you and living your life in alignment with those things is difficult; as by doing so, you must frequently say ‘no’ things and people you encounter and saying ‘no’ is hard.

There are three types of ‘no’ worth understanding. We’ll explore each one to help you shift your perspective in life so you can reserve your ‘yes’ for the things that matter most.

If You Don’t Choose For Yourself The World Will Choose For You Instead

“We are the creative force of our life, and through our own decisions rather than our conditions, if we carefully learn to do certain things, we can accomplish those goals” – Stephen Covey

When to say ‘no’ to The World.

First, you must recognise that the world doesn’t always have your back.

Photo by Mike Rawlings on Unsplash

New opportunities and experiences come with every passing moment which requires a decision of what to do next. Decisions big and small, they will come. 

Generally, you can choose freely from them without thinking…To pause before incoming traffic; to flip the light-switch inside a dark room; to put your jacket on when cold. These are all instinctive and habitual reactions which use up little-to-no decision-making power.

But what about the decisions that require do require more thought?

Today, when it comes to decisions like choosing a career, life partner or retirement plan, we get access to a wealth of online resources.

But I want to draw your attention to the daily decisions – unique to your life alone – that you’ll receive zero support in deciding upon.

In your lifetime you’ll face millions of small decisions, which seemingly inconsequential, do in reality, matter greatly that you decide well. Their compound effect leads to every road you take in life. Every opportunity, every location, every feeling, and every habit.

What many people often fail to recognise, is that the world will always provide them with a plethora of choices, and as soon as they ‘yes’ to one they’re in fact saying ‘no’ to all others.

At a restaurant deciding what to eat is saying ‘no’ to everything else on the menu.

This same metaphor extends to all areas of your life whilst deciding how to spend your time, money, energy or your love reserves.

But if you don’t know what you want from life then choosing becomes really hard.

Ask yourself now, do you know what you want most from this life? 

What is important to you? What do you value? What do you want to experience? How do you want to spend your spare time?

If you have yet to think consciously about these things you won’t be able to filter the barrage of decisions life throws your way.

Want to get married in a destination wedding? You might have to say ‘no’ to splashing money on the shoes on the Instagram ad and save the money instead.

Want to be a world famous singer/songwriter? You might have to say ‘no’ to the impromptu night out and stay in to practice instead. 

Want to have children soon? You might have to say ‘no’ to another wine and think about protecting your health instead.

Of course not every wrong decision will impede your goal, but their compound effect could as they accumulate over time.

“You only need to take a series of tiny steps, consistently, over time, to radically improve your life.” – Darren Hardy, The Compound Effect

Make sure your decisions are lining up to create the desired impact or change you most want to see happen in your lifetime and learn to say ‘no‘ to the things that will prevent you from getting there. 

I’ve had a hard time saying ‘no’ for most of my past, especially amplified during time periods of being lost due to lack of knowing what I wanted in life. 

Last year, life from the outside looked pretty good and objectively “successful”. 

I had plenty of opportunities, people and experiences to choose freely from, never bored thanks to a full plate of social events, work commitments and activities offered my way. 

My iPhone diary had been all colour and no white space for months. Morning, afternoon and night I had a call, meeting, social, or gym appointment.

I was a busy-aholic. A slut for ‘yes’. 

I said ‘yes’ to everything that came my way because I didn’t want to take any opportunity for granted or miss out on a potential new adventure, romantic interest or learning experience.

You see I was so grateful for these opportunities. When I first moved to London I didn’t have much of a life. Certainly nothing that offered these kinds of privileges. 

So now – with the friend group and the cool job I had wanted for so long – why would I say no to the opportunities they were affording me with?

But then one week I hit rock bottom

Overwhelmed by a nervous breakdown one day, I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. I felt depleted with nothing left to give. I watched Netflix, slept and cried for four days straight and called in sick to work. 

With hindsight, this was burnt-out by ‘yes’. 

Everything had been compounding and I couldn’t take it any more. 

The biggest toll it took was on my body with irregular periods, weight gain, brittle nails, eczema, and lethargy. 

I had I been filling my plate indiscriminately with beige ‘yeses’ and none of the healthy, green and nourishing ‘nos’ it needed.

Once I began to cut stuff out I was actually able to make real progress on the work and fitness I wanted most. 

If something is not a “hell, YEAH! Then it’s a “no!” – James Altucher

Photo by Dev on Unsplash

To preserve your time and energy for the things that matter most you must learn to habitually say ‘no’ to many of the opportunities life throws your way.

Think about this properly. Is it currently coming out a ‘yes’ when it ought to be ‘no’?

If you’re not sure then sit down, think, pray, meditate or journal your way there. 

Say ‘no’ to the world consciously so you can reserve your ‘yes’ for the right people, places, and opportunities.

‘No’ Is Kinder Than Your Weak ‘Yes’

‘But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’, for whatever is more than these is from the evil one’ – Matthew 5:37

When to say ‘no’ to Other People. 

Saying ‘no’ to the wishes of others is hard, because they will rarely expect you to do so, and you’ll likely experience a barrage of negative emotions in doing so.

We’re conditioned to be social animals. We want to fit in and to be liked. 

By saying ‘no’ to someone, we’re inferring we have better knowledge or intentions than they have on offer; and put ourselves at risk of social isolation.

We risk being seen as rude, uncaring, selfish, immodest or self-aggrandising.

You worry:

Who do I think I am anyway, saying ‘no’? 

Saying ‘no’ to others requires thinking of yourself differently – you’ve decided what you care about and this request is not one of those things. 

This gives you guilty feelings. Even reading now this you’re thinking of all the things you’d love to say ‘no’ to but know are unlikely to.

Many women especially are expected to be accommodating. In the workplace, familial roles and in romantic relationships we are are often the givers, the confidantes, and caretakers for the aspirations of others whose needs may come first.

We rarely say ‘no’ when the fear of judgment from others is stronger than our own personal boundaries. 

However, if we do not say ‘no’, when we want to say ‘no’, we find ourselves full of resentment, frustration, and suffering in the end. 

It is kinder to say ‘no’ when we want to. Kinder because people know where you really stand, and can take their request somewhere it will be fulfilled more fully. 

Kinder to your goals and dreams and own sense of self-worth.

“Real freedom is saying ‘no’ without giving a reason.” ― Amit Kalantri, Wealth of Words 

Photo by Simone Acquaroli on Unsplash

I’ve struggled massively with filtering requests.

It becAt work especially, my job requires connecting with lots of people, last year this literally amounted to hundreds.

A core part of my core role is supporting people on their startup journeys. It’s a ‘made up’ job in some ways and whilst I set goals with my bosses, from the outside to other people, it would not be entirely clear what my focus is.

And when someone isn’t sure, I’ve found they will simply assume it to be the thing that they want it to be. They will see you as a canvas upon which to paint their own goals. 

I frequently find myself on the receiving end of a barrage of requests for my time, energy and attention over email or social media.

At first, it was very flattering. I like to feel needed and to have a job ‘cool’ enough that people would care to know more about it.

But burn out came from saying ‘yes’ to too many requests. Requests to ‘pick my brain’, get coffee or give advice. ‘Yes’ to email threads I’d get speculatively looped into because so-and-so wanted me to meet so-and-so who is starting their new venture or wanting a job in startups.

Beware of the ‘hustler’. It’s in their nature to put themselves out there and ask, taking a spray and pray approach to their work because they know that for every ‘no’ they are closer to a ‘yes. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a hustlers request you do not have to say ‘yes’.

But as I found myself increasingly saying ‘yes’, and the requests piled up; so did my resentment.

My enthusiasm for the work I loved so much initially, soon began to wane.

My energy depleted and relationships suffered.

I was barely able to mutter a word to my housemates when I got in after the day at work. 

After burning out, slowly I’m learning to filter requests better and to reserve the best version of me for the situations that want to be in. To be more present and aware and appreciative of those situations, and to the people within them. To be able to give my true attention and creative energy to the projects I am best served to work on. 

You cannot be all things to all people. 

It is not nice to yourself or to them either. They deserve the best part of you, the part with the unique gifts you have, and in times when you’re excited and energised to be in them.

“The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear” – Socrates

If you’re trying to achieve or change anything in life, you must align your decisions now with a version of yourself in the future – the person you want to become. How would she decide? Would she say ‘yes’ to this request?

Decide based on the direction you would like your life to go, not based on where it is now.

The best way to predict the future is to create it. 

If you want become this person with less on their plate, more achievements behind them and more energy, then start acting in line with that person now by making the right choices today.

Mind Over Matter: Ignore Your Body And Say No, Even When It’s Hard 

“Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.” ― Jerzy Gregorek

When to say ‘no’ to Yourself.

Treat even your own desires with caution because oftentimes we’re our own worst enemy.

The philosopher Descartes’s theory of Dualism has long drawn our attention to the concept of our bodies and minds being two separate entities. 

Call it your guardian angel vs. the inner demon or your higher consciousness of Self vs. the Ego. Wherever you sit on the philosophical/ evolutionary/ religious spectrum it can’t be denied there exists an ongoing tension between your desires. 

Decision making can be a complex internal battleground. 

The upshot?

There’s plenty of times in life that you will want to say ‘yes’ when you shouldn’t. 

You will want to say yes to the things that are easy to say yes to. 

Another drink, the burger on the menu, the snooze button, a cheeky cigarette. 

You’ll want to be carefree, fun, spontaneous and ‘chill’. To go where the moment takes you and enjoy life to it’s fullest. 

But unless you train it otherwise, your body will instinctively seek out pleasure that knows no limit and ultimately hampers your deepest longings. 

“I desire the things that will destroy me in the end.” ― Sylvia Plath

Hardwired for survival and to meet our basic needs, we will always seek food, sex, and safety.

We will always crave the fun and the sense of belonging that following the group brings us and easy to say ‘yes’ to those things in the moment.

But what about when the fun stops? 

You’re left with a bulging beer belly, dark circles under your eyes and poor cardiovascular health. The empty page with no words because you went out with your friends instead of staying home to write. 

It’s the new running shoes still left in the box. Another calendar month gone by and none of the ‘new year new me’ results to show for it.

What our body desires our true self rarely does. 

It is a struggle to say ‘no’ when there’s a short-term satisfactory hit attached to ‘yes’. 

But you must delay your gratification by saying ‘no’, not because you don’t want that thing right now, but because you don’t want its consequences.

“Avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The avoidance of failure is a failure.” — Mark Manson

I recently said no to something so hard to say ‘no’ to that it gave me an overwhelming feeling of anxiety resulting in stomach pains.

It was during a solo four-night trip away to Seville in Spain, that I made friends with some people who then invited me to attend the city’s biggest annual party called La Feria.

You need to be in the know to get an invite to the best section of this party; a party full of well-heeled men and women who splash out for the occasion in flamenco dresses and traditional suits, eating tapas and drinking all kinds of beverages until the following morning. 

I had images of the highly-Instagrammable scenes I would be able to post to impress people back at home with. Imagining the experience of what it would be like inside of the tents, hanging off the arms of the men in suits in the new dress I had even gone out to buy, and enjoying the drunken dancing and laughter until the early hours of the morning watching the sunrise on another warm day in Spanish paradise.

However, I decided not to go. 

Instead, staying at the hotel on my own.

Why? Because I wanted and needed to sleep, read, meditate and write (this article, currently).

I love fun. I love drinking, dancing, eating, meeting new people and dressing up. I really live for that stuff and believe life should be full of these experiences where possible. I know for a fact it would have been amazing. 

However, I also know how much money it would cost me, and the cost of further damaging my body through excess on top of the previous two days. 

Most importantly, however, the decision to say ‘no’ was about honoring the commitment I had made to myself to use this portion of the trip to rest and doing the creative work my mind craved. 

The decision to say ‘no’ was based on choosing me. It was about choosing bigger goals and expectations than being cool and fun and carefree. Choosing to look after my body, mind and my spirit. Choosing to finally write this article that has been forming in my mind for a while, left unfinished. 

“If you let your unfinished business keep camping out in your mind, your self-esteem will never reach top-quality levels…they very level you’ll need to achieve your highest goals” – Anthony Moore

You too may find yourself saying ‘no’ to the shinier, more glamorous and interesting experiences in life, experiences that come with stories worth telling.

Yet people will quickly forget the stories you tell them. 

You will quickly move on from the hedonistic moments and disappearing Instagram or Snapchat Stories. 

You will be left with the aftermath of those moments, in the quiet life with yourself alone.

And if you continually break the promises you make to yourself, you’ll be left with resentment and regret.

What reputation do you have with yourself? What accountability are you providing to yourself? Do you honor your commitments?

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams” – Eleanor Roosevelt

If you want to experience any tangible and meaningful change in your life you must put a stop to the self-talk that says “later”. 

The book won’t write itself. The six pack abs won’t carve themselves. The house deposit won’t save itself. 

If you do not ignore the hedonistic and fleeting desires of the body, you cannot make any grand vision you have for your life a reality. 

I like my body. I like my skin. I like my bank balance and I like the direction my life is headed. 

I like the fact I am pursuing creative projects and seeing my work published online – no matter how small the audience might be, I have done it and that is what matters. 

Photo by Georgia de Lotz on Unsplash

I get pleasure in the fact that these things are “on track” on a daily basis. There is a pleasure gained from the opportunities and adventures that having money, an interesting job and confidence in myself provides. None of these things came easily or freely, but all from hard work and dedication and lots of ‘hard’ choices.

Spending more time on self-care than destruction has its advantages, but so many people rarely think about things in such a long term way. 

 What are you saying ‘yes’ to in your own life that you should be saying ‘no’ to to see true progress in your goals and life dreams?

Review each area of your life and schedule and consider deeply it aligns with the person you want to be, with the achievements, relationships, health and wealth that you truly desire.

A note from the Author: For more content like this follow me on Medium or visit where I talk about designing a life and career to love.


  • Ellen Donnelly

    Founder + Chief Coach for people defining their ideal entrepreneurial career

    The Ask®

    As Founder of The Ask® Ellen works with founders, freelancers, and startup communities to empower entrepreneurial people to find the confidence and clarity to launch a business doing what they love. Combining certified mindset coaching with practical tools gained from a decade in the startup industry, Ellen guides founders to get clear on their own version of success, and to design a business around their unique strengths, talents, and passions.