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  • Writer's pictureBrianna Wall

The Power of No

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

Three questions to ask before making a commitment

Have you ever heard the term “Every time you say Yes to something, you’re saying No to something else?” It’s so true. Some of us say Yes to every opportunity, only later to find ourselves overcommitted and undermotivated. I have discovered those who know when and how to say No exude a specific kind of confidence and self-assurance without being impolite or rude. Some even consider this to be an art — it's certainly something that can be learned.

How do some people say No so easily? Doesn’t it hurt the feelings of the person asking them? Are they not honored or flattered to have been invited to collaborate, attend or be recognized? There’s a hint of boldness and freedom in the word No, and it’s something that has taken time to become comfortable saying.

When you’re in the beginning stages of a new career or starting something new, saying Yes more times than not is a necessity. Your success could depend on your eagerness to learn, your hunger for growth. One of the best ways to do that is to accept the invitations, join the committees, attend the events and put yourself out there. I did that early in my career and it served me well. Now, 15 years later, I have earned the ability to be more selective in how I spend my time.

The Yeses I give away now undergo a filtering process — I almost never make a commitment immediately.

On the other hand, I often know right away that the answer is No. When those opportunities arise, I offer a polite and succinct No, not wanting to raise someone's hopes by delaying.

The filtering process I mentioned is directly related to how and if you set BHAGs (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) or have any kind of vision or purpose for your life. Not surprisingly, I do, so I ask three questions about any and every opportunity:

  1. Will saying Yes to this get me closer to achieving my BHAGs or fulfilling my life's purpose?

  2. Is this an opportunity for me to do good or make myself look good?*

  3. What will I say No to?*

* Questions 2 and 3 are credited to Jordan Raynor in his book Redeeming Your Time. This book changed the foundation of how I plan in accordance with my walk with God — I highly recommend it for Christians seeking to be intentional about the time they are given.

Will saying YES to this get me closer to achieving my big, hairy, audacious goals?

We are presented with countless opportunities every day. “Want to grab coffee?” “Would you like to help plan the spring event?” “We would love for you to join the PTA board!” As flattering as those invitations may be, they likely won't move you closer to meeting your goals.

Now, say you have a BHAG to complete your Master's degree by the end of the year. Let's filter each of these opportunities through that lens.

  • Does the coffee meeting help get you closer to completing your Master's degree? Perhaps, if the coffee meeting is with your academic advisor or a classmate you're collaborating with to complete an assignment. But, in this scenario, a neighbor is wanting to grab coffee simply because they enjoy your company. It might be best to delay acceptance until you've reached your main goal.

  • Does helping plan the spring event get you closer to completing your Master's degree? You already know planning an event takes time, resources and a lot of mental energy — even if you're working with a planning committee. Sure, if the event meets a capstone or thesis project requirement, then saying Yes to the opportunity is wise. However, if you know every spare moment for the foreseeable future should be dedicated to studying or other priorities, simply say, "I'm flattered you thought I would be a valuable addition to the planning committee, but I have other priorities at the moment."

  • Does joining the PTA board help get you closer to completing your Master's degree? While I have always been a supporter of my son's school's PTA, I cannot envision a scenario where this kind of commitment would help you meet your goal of completing a Master's degree. Perhaps the answer isn't a definitive No, but 'maybe at another time'. If serving your community is important to you, then yes, this is a great opportunity to give back. But a higher priority at the moment is earning your Master's degree, so a response could be, "I would love to join the PTA board next year, but currently I am committed to another priority."

Always consider your highest priorities and existing commitments before adding more.

Is this an opportunity for me to do good or make myself look good?

Imagine the second opportunity in the previous section emerged from your filters as a Yes — you've decided to join the spring event planning committee. Now, let's check your motives.

This is a pretty straight-forward question to ask when opportunities arise, and it forces you into humility. I don't know about you, but I must be intentional about being humble, and asking this question reveals my true motives. While there's nothing inherently wrong with making yourself look good, it's best to look for ways you could do good in each opportunity.

Helping plan the spring event alongside a Who's Who of community leaders puts you in impressive company. Wouldn't your name look great listed with theirs? The planning committee seems to have plenty of volunteers, so your efforts aren't particularly needed. But it's flattering they thought to include you.

You ultimately decide it's beneficial for you to join the spring event planning committee and accept the invitation, deciding you can rearrange your schedule to find the time to complete your Master's degree.

What will I say No to?

If you are committing time, energy and resources to something, then it proves to be true that you are taking time, energy and resources away from something else. Essentially, what are you giving up in order to say Yes?

In our continued example, you've committed to help plan the spring event, which means multiple planning meetings will now take the place of time you had set aside to study for your Master's degree. You then begin filling most of the gaps in your schedule with studying, only to discover you are mentally spent at the end of each day. You've had to stay up later and, as a result, are surviving on lack of sleep, which clouds your judgement and makes you more irritable.

Not only have you said No to your BHAG, but you've said No to a well-balanced schedule and all the benefits that come with restful sleep. Perhaps you've also said No to dinners or evenings with your family, or your morning workout — all to make time to study because you've overbooked your schedule.


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Sure, this could be a pretty extreme example, but it could also be very possible if we don't filter every opportunity through a system that ensures we stay focused on the long-term and keep our eyes on the prize, always striving to become the person we want to be.

Distractions constantly tempt us, and the better we get at saying No, the more energy, time and resources we can devote to our big, hairy, audacious goals.

Remember what ultimately drives you — your why. My love language is Quality Time, and I cherish time together with those I love. It's why I have obsessively evaluated and reevaluated my practices to ensure I'm not wasting one precious moment. It's now the primary filter I use to assess opportunities. If I can commit to something new without it affecting the time I have set aside for my people, it makes it to the next step in the filtering process. If there's even a small chance that the opportunity could mean giving up time with my family, it's a hard No 99% of the time. I've learned that time is something I can't get back, and I make no apologies for being overprotective of mine.

I hope you realize the importance and power of saying No. By saying No more, you are saying Yes to the people, causes and values you treasure, and that is certainly nothing to feel bad about.

If you're in need of more practices like this or are curious about the system that has worked for me, check out my other time management posts. Be sure to subscribe so you can be the first to know when I release a new blog post, podcast episode or creative challenge!

Thanks for following along!

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Erin McKnight
Erin McKnight

This is so valuable. Asking these questions would have saved me so much trouble in the past. I especially love the do good vs look good. People don't always examine their motivations before acting. Taking that moment to think will change a lot.

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