How to say ‘no’ to anyone

If you’re like me, one of your biggest challenges (which has gotten even worse with the ability for anyone to text you or email you any time of day) is not saying ‘yes’ to every invite or project that comes your way.

For me, sometimes it feels that if I say ‘no’ to something, it’s like I’ve lost points with that person. That they won’t like me as much. That I’ll hurt their feelings. That they won’t invite me to another event in the future. That I won’t get the “good” project next time.

And we’ve all been there. We’re way overworked, or we’re too exhausted from our day to go out for the third night in a row or we just don’t like that actor playing in the lead in that movie and we want to say ‘no’ but we end up saying ‘yes’ and accept instead. 

Later, we furrow our brows and let our breath out slowly as we scroll through multitudes of calendar invites set weeks or even months away. Then as we get closer to a date, we smack our head in frustration, suck it up, and we do it because we said we would.

Up until recently this was my dilemma. Sometimes I’d have three or four invites to go out the same day (yes, lucky  me, and gratefulness also stopped me from saying ‘no’) and there was no way I could physically attend them all at the same time. Yet my answers were ‘yes’ to everyone and crazy plan would be hatched… I would spend an hour at each event. I’d have 30 minutes to get to each place. I’d have one drink and leave, then on to the next bash. 

But this didn’t work. I’d invariably get so wrapped up in a conversation at the first place that I’d look at my watch and notice I’d have 20 minutes to get to my next event before everyone left. My only option at that point was to “flake” which I hate doing because I hate it when others do it to me.

But it doesn’t have to be this way according to many of the contributors to Tim Ferriss’ latest book titled Tribe of Mentors

For those of you who think you know this author, you probably do. He most famously wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, and in his new book, he documents his two years of mad emails back and forth with his book’s  ‘dream’ contributors such as Tony Hawk (olympic gold medalist for skateboarding), Arianna Huffington (founder, Huffington Post) and Maria Sharapova (tennis champion). 

He asks each of them questions (that I think could also make amazing conversation starters) such as “What do you do when you’re overwhelmed?”, “What is the one thing under $100 that you’ve purchased that has made the most impact on your life recently?” or “If you had a billboard, what would it say?”.

One of his questions revolves around how they say ‘no’ instead of ‘yes’ to the multitude of opportunities that come their way. Their answers varied, but were helpful. And there are a few I’m going to start implementing myself to avoid that empty, emotional pit of flake-dom.

Some of my favorite go-to methods that help them to say ‘no’ more often include:

  1. Never accept an invite more than one week out. (The exception would be for important family events such as your son’s first piano recital or your grandma’s 98th birthday bash on the east coast.)

    Why this works: When your calendar is empty going forward it creates the freedom for you to prioritize all of your invites to only accept those that would actually enhance your life. If the event won’t create joy or happiness or help you learn something new, then you are throwing away your most precious commodity which is time. When you don’t immediately accept every offer that comes your way you’ll be able to more thoughtfully evaluate each invite which in turn makes it easier for you to say ‘no’ to those that essentially will waste your time.

    How to do this: When you get invites to do things out further than a week, respond with “I’ll have get back to you on that. I have a lot of things going on right now. Could you ask me again closer to that date and we’ll see where I am with my free time?”. If they ask you again, see below. If they don’t ask you again, you’ve just dodged a time-sucking bullet because it wasn’t that important in the first place.

  2. Imagine the event or project is happening immediately.

    Why this works:
    Most invitations are delivered with enthusiasm which rubs off on you and so your first instinct may be to accept. When you think about whether you would do the same thing at a closer date instead, it clarifies whether or not you would really want to do it regardless of having the time to do it later. We usually think we have copious amounts of free time in the future so we accept, and we don’t think about how we’ll feel if we do it. By pretending the event or project launch is sooner rather than later, it allows us to tap into our true feelings about doing it or not, making it easier to say ‘no’ to something you don’t feel like doing even if it’s weeks or a month out.

    How to do this: If the event or project starts in a few weeks on a Tuesday, ask yourself “Would I say ‘yes’ if this was happening Tuesday of this week?”or ask yourself “Would I say ‘yes’ if this was taking place tomorrow morning?”. If the answer is ‘no’ then you know what you need to do. Decline or defer your decision until closer to the date.

  3. Ask yourself if it’s something you’d remember on your deathbed. I get that not every request needs to be weighed this drastically, but hear me out.

    Why this works: Many philosophers cite that when you’re about to die, that’s the most poignant time to take stock in what made a difference in your life. Every event or project we do has the potential to create lasting meaning for you whether it’s a party where you had a gut instinct you’d meet someone special (and where you met your partner) or an invite to speak to a group at a local networking event (and where you learned that others also had a difficult time starting on their book). So when we get an invite, say to do a lecture out of town that will require a great amount of effort and travel, we may immediately say ‘yes’. I mean, what a great opportunity for exposure, right? But when we take the time to think about whether that lecture experience would be so memorable it would shine among other experiences in our lifetime, does it still pass muster? Do you believe your message for that audience will really affect those people forever?

    How to do this: Ask yourself, “If I do this thing, would it be one of the shining moments I would recall with one of my last, dying breaths?”. If you feel like you’d remember the time with fondness, pride and joy then commit to it and don’t look back. If not, know that more invites will come your way, and by picking and choosing them using this framework you’ll actually be helping create more demand for your time because you’ll have given it your all and it was what you were put on this earth here to do.

For more bits of wisdom like these, check out the book Tribe of Mentors here.

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