Saying No, So You Can Say Yes When it Matters


I have a problem: It’s really hard for me to say no to new, exciting projects.

If you’re doing creative work at all (and I’m using this term very broadly, so that should mean just about everybody), then you’ve probably run into this problem yourself. There are endless options for how you could spend your time, and how you decide to do so will obviously have implications for your financial life.

Every time I get on Twitter or Instagram, even for just a minute, I see people doing these really cool projects. There are so many ideas out there that it seems like they are becoming a dime a dozen. But getting the main stuff done — that’s pretty valuable too.

This brings me back to my problem. Given the seemingly infinite set of options for how we can spend our time, the ability to say no is an increasingly rare and valuable skill.

I was thinking about this the other day as I wrote a note to a friend, telling her that I just couldn’t participate in a really cool project she had asked me to be involved with. I hadn’t really committed to the project, but I had been excited about getting involved, had expressed my excitement to her and then realized I just couldn’t do it.

It took me three days to write this email. I found it super hard.

Writing this rejection letter reminded me of a recent experience with another friend. He is a doctor who works in the emergency department at a major university hospital and also teaches at the associated medical school. Because he was so good at everything he did, he was always being asked if he could do more. “Will you serve on this committee?” or “Can you help with this research project?” The requests were endless.

Like many of us, he had a hard time saying no. And it was getting him into trouble. Not only was it compromising his work, but it was also affecting his time outside of work.

Finally, his wife had enough. So she pulled out a 3-inch by 5-inch index card and wrote in big, bold letters the word NO. She put the card in the pocket of his scrubs, sat him down and told him, “Every time you’re asked to do something new, I want you to just pull this card out of your pocket and read it.”

At first, when he pulled out this card, he’d shrug and read it sort of sheepishly, almost like he was asking a question. I know, because shortly after his wife gave him the card, I asked him if he’d like to help me with something and he had to tell me no. But as he practiced, the ability to say no started to grow on him. He got better and better at turning down new projects that he simply couldn’t fit into his schedule.

Learning to say no is incredibly important, but it’s also important to understand why we say it. As we learn to say no to certain projects, we’re left with more room to give an emphatic “yes” to other ones. If you want to learn more about this idea, Greg McKeown’s book, “Essentialism,” is a great place to start. Mr. McKeown makes a strong case for the importance of learning to say no as a creative professional, so you can devote more time and energy to the things that matter most.

But in the meantime, pull out an index card and write the word NO. Put an exclamation mark on it, stick it in your pocket and practice. Like my friend, you might feel kind of sheepish at the beginning. But over time, it will be easier and you’ll spend more time on things you’re glad you could say yes to.

This commentary originally appeared January 18 on

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