We all know we should say “no” more often. But we’re nice people and so it’s hard to turn down requests. Ultimately, that’s what most of our yeses go to.
Life is full of them.
Your to-do list is a set of requests. So is your inbox. Your Facebook messages, Instagram DMs, Twitter notifications. Requests, requests, requests. And we haven’t even gotten to friends asking favors. Let alone business opportunities.
When you’re starting out in your career, contacts and customers expect your free assistance while every phone call is a welcome distraction from your underdog status. As soon as you’re seeing some level of productivity and success, you’ll be inundated with opportunities. Let’s partner up, be on my podcast, here’s a paid gig. I call it ‘opportunity suffocation.’
But, at the end of the day, they’re all just requests. No matter how well they’re disguised. And don’t we really know what we have to do? Write more. Pitch more. Practice more. Most of the time, it’s more of the same. Answering requests won’t help with that.
Of course, there are other good reasons to say “no” besides focus at work.
Like time. The big one. The first one they throw at our head. “If you agree to every little thing, you’ll have no time left for the big and important ones.” True. But isn’t that more of a long-term problem? Sure, regret sucks, but I rarely feel like small detours here and there really hurt. Of course, you can’t allow them to pile up, but the time argument feels rather weak to me.
Now, energy, that’s a different thing. A much better reason, I think. Every time I say “yes” when I actually want to say “no,” a little piece of me dies. “Yes” is what drags you out the house on a Friday night when you want to stay in. “Yes” is what sneaks you into a room full of the wrong people. “Yes” is what makes your gut twist in the morning when you drive to a toxic job.
Often, it’s not so much time I’m looking for with my nos, it’s relief. Get that burden off of me! I don’t want to sell my soul, to fake another smile, to pretend I don’t know you’re benefitting more from my “yes” than me. Give me peace of mind. Give me the “ahhh, dodged that bullet” moment. That’s what I want. I care a lot more about that than losing an hour, a day, a week.
Saying “no” isn’t as much about happiness as it’s about not being miserable.
Then again, of course, it’s important for contentment too. But not the way we think. Yes, it’s true that we need space to build our own little forts of happiness. But — and I never hear anyone talk about this — we also need room for randomness. Because, actually, happiness is a very random thing.
The best things in life are side effects. The ice cream parlor you found when you were lost. The old friend you bumped into on the train. The new kind of tea they offered at the cafeteria. But without margin, both in time and energy, there’s no room for any of this. If your schedule, your friends list, your life is too packed with obligations, there’s no space for serendipity to even occur.
Because you’re never breathing. Wandering. Allowing yourself an open mind.
I think that’s the real reason saying “no” is so important. Getting ahead at work, choosing your life’s projects, not being drained by toxic suckers, all of that matters. But if after all of that, there’s still nowhere to go for the moments in your life that truly make it worth living, why do it anyway?
That’s counterintuitive. We all know we should say “no” more often. But we think we should do it because we already have so many good things to fill life with. And while that’s true, the best moments of all are the tiny dots that will cover the gaps along the way. And they’re impossible to visualize beforehand.
“No” feels harder to say. More empowering when we do. But it’s really just a singular defense. A lone disaster averted. It needs time to compound. Our yeses, however, are where the real danger lies. “Yes” doesn’t feel special, but it is. Because it’s a thousand nos combined. A thousand times more powerful.
Every “yes” is a “no” to a million other things, some of which you can’t even imagine. But they might still be the best things that’ll ever happen to you.
Make sure you allow them to exist.