I like to make people happy. I enjoy helping people. I find joy in sharing and in teaching people. And sometimes, I admit, I have a hard time dealing with “missing out.” All that boils down to this:

Declining is difficult!

One of my struggles with time management and work-life balance is and has always been that I often fail to recognize that there’s a limit to hours in the day, days in the week and weeks in the months. Over the years, I would say “yes” with completely good intentions, with the mindset that there is plenty of time to accomplish the task or tasks. I would agree too quickly, without first taking a time-available inventory and measuring my level of energy reserves.

I’d nod up and down instead of back and forth without even thinking: if I don’t take it easy, I might nod off.

If only, ahead of time, I had actually counted all of the time increments I would have had to spend on that task (in the already-limited hours I have outside of work), I’d probably have made better choices, choices that wouldn’t have led to stress, tears and overwhelm.

As I write this, I’m having flashbacks of my time at Solid Cactus, an e-commerce development firm where I spent three amazing years. There, project managers would carefully assign design hours, programming time, testing periods, etc. for each eCommerce store development job. Not everything with client work will ever hold exactly to that structure, but it was there to help keep projects on task. I admired that ability. Those who could set and follow such detailed task management.

I’ve never been able to calculate my time into neat slots like that. And while I know accounting for every minute is unrealistic for someone like me, I need more structure. But here’s the thing: Even if I WAS to transform into a super-structured person, I still have limited hours in which to work, sleep, eat, spend time on pet projects and community involvement and enjoy company of friends and relatives.

Therefore, before I can manage my time, I need to make time. And that means more N-O.

And it’s important to note—and admit to myself—that it’s not always me saying “yes” to others. I also must learn to say “no” to the biggest culprit of adding more to my schedule: ME. Yes, I’ll speak here. Yes, I’ll volunteer for that. Yes, I’ll go to dinner. Yes, I’ll take another class. Yes, I’ll take a vacation even though it’s back-to-back with a conference. Yes, I will write a guest blog post. Yes, I’ll work a part-time job. Yes, I’ll help with your grand opening.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

A pattern would develop. Not long after giving an affirmative answer, the harsh reality of an old cliché would set it: “So much to do, so little time.” It’s not often that I disappoint, but sometimes I had to cancel something at the last minute—and moments like that slowly built up to a bit of a breakdown-slash-epiphany in October.

But usually, my last-minute cancellations were because I was holding out until the last minute to disappoint, with magical thinking that I’d get an enormous amount of stuff done in a morsel of time. Saying yes to five small things adds up—see the earlier paragraph about underestimating time.

Usually, though, I’d push through, getting the things others need first, leaving my own needs last. I should point out that work–as in my day jobs (plural, as in over the years)–has never suffered; it was always the “side things” with which I struggle.

Admittedly, whenever I find myself overwhelmed, my prioritization process went/goes like this: what project will impact the least amount of people if it doesn’t get done? OR, when I did freelance writing, What has a print deadline? Anything that was just for me or for friends and family (who, of course, understand, right??) would get pushed off for last or all together.

Coming to Terms

I opened this post with a few reasons I yay more than nay. Coming to terms with those reasons is a step in the right direction. When I understand the WHY I can figure out the HOW, as in “how do I cut back?”

During my little breakdown, I admitted why I so often refuse to reject. While deep inside I knew why, I finally said out loud. It made it real. I told someone. My issue has been this:

Everything to which I say “yes” is usually awesome. And by saying “no” I remove potential awesome from my life. Right? That’s what I still grapple with. But I’m learning that it is OK to miss out on some things. I’ve got to learn to get over the fact that certain life choices—whether it’s a small project or a big life change—means missing out. It just does.

People deal with sacrifice every. single. day. The same way choosing to have a child might mean missing out on adult things from time to time. The same way choosing to commute for a few hours each way to work each day might mean missing out on time at home. The same way choosing to work third shift for higher pay means missing out on ‘normal’ hour events. The same way choosing to join the military means leaving home for months or years at a time.

We give to get.

My case is a bit simpler than those last few extreme examples I gave, but thinking about cases like that helps me see that I worry too much about smaller things that others might immediately forget.

I think I get it:

By confidently saying “no” to certain things, I can say “yes” to more meaningful things.

How to Say Yes to “NO!”

Let me get one thing straight. I’m not suggesting I want to cut all extracurriculars out of my life. I don’t want to say “no” to everything and I certainly don’t just want a 9-5 life and a home life. I want professional and personal fulfillment in several areas of my life. Saying “no” more often will help me focus on relationships that need tending and keep my mind on specific goals. While I’m just writing this post in mid-January, I’ve made some headway in this area over the last few months.

Here are some things I discovered about myself or things I know I need to do:

  • I need to become confident in saying no. I’m a sucker. I cave easily.
  • People will still like me if I do not have time to do something.
  • Saying no does not usually hurt people’s feelings. (excluding meaningful personal events in this bullet; that’s another story)
  • I’m not being “mean” by saying no.
  • People will still respect me if I say “no”; in fact, it could help earn more respect as I demonstrate that my time is valuable and that I choose wisely.
  • Personal relationships need nurturing. Not excuses. Not rainchecks.
  • I work in a knowledge-based field. People outside the field don’t always understand how valuable time is. (Best analogy to use here is asking a mechanic friend to fix your car, which takes time and you can see tangible results; creativity is different but it doesn’t mean less time is spent. But people in professions like mine have no doubt heard, “But you sit at a desk.”)
  • I need to pause and think before answering. It’s like I have little yesses hiding underneath my tongue that just fall out immediately upon hearing a question. I need to tame those little guys.
  • Authenticity matters. Hearing “I’m busy” is trite and lame and so overused—I hate hearing it (people can see right through it), so I try my hardest to avoid saying it. I’ve definitely become more honest in my reasons for saying no. Admitting I’ve overextended myself reminds me that I’ve done so.
  • I’m not being selfish if I don’t help everyone.
  • And if it is, I should remember that it’s OK to be selfish sometimes.

Here are a few pieces of “how to get better at saying no” advice I found recently:

  • A 2011 post at Time Diet, “Learning to Say No, suggested saying “no” promptly. Maybes aren’t fair; just say “no” right away if you’re almost positive you can’t do something. I’ve noticed that, over the past few months, I’ve been doing this—it kind of came naturally-yet-suddenly but I didn’t even realize I was doing so until I read this post. An Inc. article from Oct. 2013 echoes this; in 4 Ways to Have a Life Outside Business Alexa Von Tobel writes about learning to politely say no and to set better expectations. She wrote, “…if I tried to appease them and make plans only to cancel at the last minute, that would have been worse.”
  • Peter Bregman of Harvard Business Review shared Nine Practices to Help You Say No in Feb. 2013. Among his nuggets of advice was a reminder that being appreciative of a request does not have to lead to a “yes”. So continue to thank people for thinking of you. Also, he says that when you say “no”, you’re not rejecting the person; you’re rejecting the request.
  • Bregman also had a great tip: Practice saying “no” in low-risk situations. For example, turn down dessert the next time you’re at dinner.
  • In her Jan. 14, 2014 LinkedIn “Productivity Hacks” blog post, Keep a ‘No Thanks’ Journal Beth Kanter writes to record down all those moments you say “no” – or say “yes” when it should have been the opposite. These journal entries could be favors you were asked down to smaller, personal decisions such as going out after work. This allowed her to reflect on her choices and helped strengthen her “no muscle.” She modeled this idea off an equally effective tool for personal development: the gratitude journal.
  • Kelly Gurnett offers a few phrases in her April 29, 2013 Brazen blog post 5 Ways to Say No Without Making People Hate You.” One of her suggestions jumped out at me. Perhaps there is something I would like to do and CAN do, just not right NOW. For situations like this, she suggests saying, “I’m all booked until [this date]. I can put this on my list for then if you like.” I like Gurnett’s suggestion here because it still puts you in control of your time, while still being agreeable. I’ll reserve this for special cases because, after all, I need more NO. Her title is my exact fear, by the way.

I’ll close with perhaps one of the best lines I found while trying to educate myself on how to say “no.” Judith Stills wrote in her Psychology Today article The Power of No this gem:

“Wielded wisely, No is an instrument of integrity and a shield against exploitation. It is hard to receive. But setting limits sets us free.” – Stills