Lately I’ve been thinking about the structures that allow joy to happen, and how they’re sometimes a bit counterintuitive. For example, we think of spontaneity as joyful, but planning ahead often results in more joy. When we leave everything up to chance, we often miss out on things, either because they’re all booked up already (by the planners) or because without a plan it can be easy to do the same-old things we usually do. While planning has a reputation for being tedious, it can create space for future joys, like a vacation or a show by your favorite comedian who’s passing through town.
Similarly, we often think about Yes! as a joyful word. “Yes” means enthusiasm and acceptance. “No,” by contrast, feels like it signifies the opposite: disinterest, disappointment, rejection. From college applications to marriage proposals, we celebrate the yeses and lament the nos. But in countless conversations recently I’ve found myself thinking about how getting comfortable with No is actually vital to unlocking more joy in life.
The Fear of No
This one is really personal for me. I grew up associating the word no strongly with rejection. Saying no could hurt someone’s feelings or let them down. Being on the receiving end of a no was often a blow to my self-esteem. The results of this kind of thinking? Here are a few.
I overcommitted. Afraid to let people down or offend them by saying no, I said yes to too many things and often found myself overwhelmed by tasks or events I had agreed to. I did this at work, but also in other areas of life. I maintained a lot of friendships that weren’t really fulfilling just because I was afraid to say no to them. This left me feeling run ragged while simultaneously not feeling truly close to anyone. What gave in these situations? Sleep, sanity, and my own joy. Anything to avoid the pain of saying no.
I couldn’t make decisions. Making decisions means saying no to something so you can choose something else. In fact, the root of the word decide (-cide) means “to kill”! My fear of brutally murdering one of my options often meant I took way too long to make decisions. My inbox was full of things I was too overcommitted to say yes to, but too afraid to say no to, so things just sat in there without a response. This was basically saying no, but doing it in the worst possible way. (By the way, if you have an overflowing inbox that you can never seem to get control over, chances are that you have a “no problem.” Emails are full of decisions, and an inbox with messages sitting can be a sign that your obstacles are deeper than organization.)
I felt resentful. Because I was often doing things I wished I’d said no to, I found myself feeling resentful of others. Pro tip: when you find yourself annoyed at friends for having birthday celebrations, it might be that you are overextending yourself just a bit.
I was afraid to take risks. Because no was such a dirty word to me, I was as terrified of hearing it as I was of saying it. No meant that I or my work wasn’t good enough, and this was devastating. As a result, I resorted to behaviors like perfectionism (to avoid exposing myself to criticism) and risk aversion (by playing it safe, I created fewer opportunities for people to find fault with my work) that held me back from growth. I didn’t put myself out there as much as I wanted to. This kept me safe, but also stuck.
I lost touch with my own desires. Perhaps the most insidious of all the consequences of my fear of no was this: I started to forget what I wanted. When life becomes an avoidance of the word no, we make a lot of decisions based on fear instead of desire. We go to events because we’re afraid people will be upset instead of because we really want to be there. We take on projects because we’re afraid of disappointing a client, not because we’re really excited about the work. Do this enough, and you start to forget what you really want in life, what really lights you up inside. Losing touch with desire is the gateway to losing touch with joy.
Any of these sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. A fear of no is extremely common, and can come from having a lot of conflict around you as a child or conversely, having conflict-avoidant parents. Having a lot of pressure to achieve or be seen as successful can also make you afraid of no, as can being surrounded by judgmental people, and there are lots of other situations where we can unconsciously learn the idea that no is something to be avoided.
A Joyful No?
The first time I remember encountering the idea that no could be something other than sad or scary was in a book by negotiation expert William Ury called The Power of a Positive No. A positive no? That sounded like an oxymoron when I first read it. Definitely too good to be true.
Ury describes our fear of no as resulting in three unhelpful behaviors. We either accommodate (say yes when we want to say no), attack (say no angrily or aggressively), or avoid (say nothing at all). Having done my fair share of accommodating and avoiding, I immediately saw myself in this framework. Then he points out something that is so simple yet had never occurred to me: every no has a yes underneath it. When we say no to a night out on the town, we’re also saying yes to a night in with a great book and a bubble bath. When we say no to a too-tight deadline, we say yes to time with family and the ability to do our work in a healthy way. Because we have finite amounts of time and energy, every no to one thing is also a yes to something else.
Well if that didn’t melt my brain. All those times I was saying yes to things when I really wanted to say no? What I was really doing was saying no to myself and the things that were truly important to me. By overcommitting to social events I didn’t want to go to, I was saying no to forming deep relationships, investing more time in the people who really mattered to me. When I took on projects I didn’t feel like I could turn down? I was saying no to working on my book, something that could always be put off another day. (Ever wonder how it took 10 years to write that thing?) And all those times I held myself back from doing something that might expose me to hearing no from someone else? I was saying yes to safety, and no to a world of possibilities.
The first step to a “positive no,” Ury suggests, is to figure out what you’re saying yes to. Doing this immediately relieves pressure: if you’re going to say no, now you have a real reason for doing so. It also immediately puts you back in touch with your desire. What do you want to do? Why is this important to you? Understanding this is a much easier foundation for decision-making than trying to figure out if you have a valid excuse for getting out of something or rationalizing that squirmy feeling in your gut that tells your we’re about to act against your intuition.
The Freedom of No
I realized that the word no has a parallel in design: negative space. Putting the word negative on there really makes this space sound unappealing —like an empty dance card or a blank page, just waiting to be filled up. But negative space is essential in design. A composition or a room where every square inch is filled feels overwhelming. Negative space offers breathing room, lets the eye move fluidly, and allows you to see a hierarchy of what’s important, instead of a meaningless jumble. Negative space isn’t just the absence of matter; it’s a presence in itself, necessary and valuable in its own right.
When we say yes indiscriminately, our lives become like a cluttered home where there are so many things it’s impossible to find what you need, or even walk around. Among the pieces of furniture inherited from well-meaning relatives and the wardrobe stuffed with clothes you don’t like but are afraid you might need one day, there’s little room for anything new. This can become a cycle: As commitments pile up, it becomes hard to imagine what new things we might want to explore. We lose touch with our yes, which makes it ever harder to figure out how to say no.
Yet those yeses are often our greatest joys. And once I started to focus on them, I began to feel a tremendous sense of clarity and freedom. I started saying no, tentatively at first, and then with a bit more conviction. This isn’t to say I always do a good job of it — I’m learning. But here are a few of the things I discovered when I started saying no more often:
Deeper relationships. Saying no to the acquaintance who always wanted to get together for a drink and then I didn’t see again for another year was hard, but it allowed me to go deep with true friends. If you’re in your 20s, the best advice I can give is to do this now. Once you are in long-term relationship and you and many of your friends have kids, friendships become harder to maintain and you’ll be grateful you invested in the ones that really matter to you while you had time to develop them.
Healthier relationships. Getting comfortable with no also matters within your relationships. It’s like the old saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Setting clear boundaries with the people I loved by saying no when I wasn’t comfortable doing something was incredibly challenging, but it made for a more honest and joyful set of interactions. (Side note: This is a topic we’ll be diving into in detail as part of a new, free initiative I’m launching in a few weeks. If you want to make sure you’re in the loop, you can sign up early here!)
Life and priorities in alignment. Knowing what I wanted to say yes to gave me a really clear set of priorities. Instead of feeling weasly when I said no to something, I was able to be honest with myself that it just wasn’t a priority to me. Our lives are abundant, but not infinite, and it felt good to look at the list of priorities and know that I was working on things aligned with those priorities, instead of just giving out my time first-come, first-served.
Margin. Sometimes I used to look at my life and think, “There’s no margin here.” No extra space if I got sick or made a mistake or my computer crashed. When one of those things happened, I ended up having to push myself to extremes or let a bunch of people down. Saying no has meant living less on this razor-thin edge of existence. And the best part is that when those great last-minute opportunities come up, instead of being too busy to accept, I’m more likely to have room to be able to take advantage of them.
Free time. One of the problems with the busy trap is that we get into the habit of feeling like we need an excuse to say no. Then, once we’ve made that excuse, we feel (whether consciously or unconsciously) like we have to be busy — otherwise we were lying. I can’t tell you how many times I did this. It just didn’t feel acceptable to me to say no to an evening out and spend it reading magazines. So I’d find ways to make myself as busy as I was claiming to be. And then when I finally got some free time, I felt frantic, unable to relax and just do nothing. One of my yeses this year in particular has been “real rest.” With that on my list of priorities, it’s easy to look at my calendar and see when saying yes to something would sabotage my ability to really rest in a week. Saying no protects that space to sleep, read books, and let my mind wander.
Toward a joyful no
By now, you’re probably fired up to say no a bit more often. But how exactly do we get comfortable saying no when we’ve spent so much of our lives saying yes? A few weeks ago I posed this question on Instagram, and I got a wealth of helpful responses about building up our “no” muscles, so I want to share all that wisdom here, along with a few things that have been useful to me along the way.
Put everything on your calendar — even the things you say no to. Here’s a situation I used to find myself in all the time. Someone emails and asks me to do something in six weeks. I look at my calendar and it’s totally empty, so I figure I have time for it and say yes. Fast forward six weeks, and suddenly my calendar has completely filled up. I don’t have time to write my weekly blog post, or even exercise. How did this happen?
The reality is that future time always seems more abundant than time in the present, and that can make it really easy to give away more than you have. This year, I decided to fix this. I started scheduling everything that was important to me on my calendar. If I say yes to a project, I don’t just put in the big milestones and meetings — I also put in the solo time it will take me to get the work done. I do the same with exercise, and with fun things, like time to call friends or a field trip to a museum. Now, when I look at my future calendar, I know exactly which of my priorities would have to give if I say yes to something new, and it’s much easier to say no when I can see what I’m sacrificing.
One tip that never occurred to me until it was suggested on instagram is to also write down things you say no to. After all, once you say no, don’t you want that thing out of your life? But putting it on your calendar is genius because when the day rolls around, you get to see that event or meeting and feel a sense of gratitude to your past self — because you had the courage to say no then, now you get the gift of this free time. The reward loop helps to cement the value of saying no and strengthens your resolve to keep doing it.
Say “not right now” or “not yet.” If there’s something you’d like to do, but adding it to your plate feels stressful, feel free to let people know that it’s not possible right now, but might be in the future. You can say “check back with me in a few months” if that feels right, or you let the person know you’ll reach out if it’s a possibility in the future.
“Not yet” is also a great thing to say to yourself when you hear no, such as when you get turned down for a job or a grant. Turning no into not yet focuses you on the lessons to be learned from the no. For example, a friend of mine was turned down from grad school the first time she applied. She was crushed but decided to double down and focus on her writing. The next year she got into the top program in her field, and sold her first book before she even graduated.
Create a personal policy or set a quota. If you find yourself declining the same request frequently, creating a personal policy can make it easier to do so. For example, one of my personal policies is that I don’t publish sponsored posts on this blog. Whenever I get a request to do one, it’s easy to say, “I’m honored that you thought of me, but I don’t do sponsored posts on the blog.” Because it’s a policy, as opposed to a case-by-case decision, it’s a quick response that feels clear and fair: it’s “I don’t do this” rather than “I won’t do this.”
If there’s a request you receive more often than you can manage, create a quota. For example, if you get two requests a week from people who want to have coffee with you, but you can manage more like two a month, say that based on your current commitments you are only able to grab coffee twice per month, and let the person know when the next available time is. Then they can choose whether to wait or move on and ask someone else.
Offer resources. While I was at IDEO, I often got requests from people who wanted an informational interview. I loved IDEO, and loved talking about it, but after awhile I started to realize that I was being asked the same questions over and over again, and a lot of the answers were readily available online. This didn’t make me feel so good about how I was spending my time. So I made a list of links to more information about IDEO, including articles written by my colleagues explaining exactly what it’s like to work there. When people asked to meet for an informational interview, I’d send them the resources list and let them know they were free to come back to me if they couldn’t find the answer to their question. It was an upfront investment, but it meant I could be helpful many times over instead of just saying an outright no. Similarly, if the request is for a service, you can keep a list of other providers to refer people to if you’re busy. This is a nice way to help out the requestor and build goodwill with others in your industry.
Offer encouragement. Maybe there’s no resource that will help, but it costs nothing to offer encouragement. Let people know that you think their initiative is brilliant / generous / wonderful and that you would love to participate if you could. Then wish them good luck and if appropriate, let them know you’ll be cheering them on from afar.
Say “yes, and.” This is a joyful technique from improv that also works in business meetings, or whenever someone shares an idea that isn’t quite what you’re looking for. Instead dismissing the idea with an outright no, build on it by saying “yes, and.” So if you work for a hotel chain and one of your teammates says, “I know, let’s build a hotel room on the moon!” You might say, “Yes, and let’s also build one in Antarctica,” and then someone else says, “Yes, and what if we created a whole chain of tiny one-room hotels in extreme places?” Saying “yes, and…” can get you from wild ideas to workable ones that never would have occurred to you if you shut down the initial concept.
Write the excuses. Then delete them. This technique was key for me when I first started learning to say no. I would write a whole long email saying how sorry I was that I couldn’t make it but the timing was so tight with X, Y, and Z going on, and that I looked at rescheduling things but I couldn’t make it work, and so on and so on. Then I walked away from the email for a few minutes, sat back down, and deleted all the unnecessary explanation. “I’d really love to do this, but unfortunately I’m unable to make it. Thank you so much for thinking of me.” Or if that’s too blunt, try, “I’d really love to do this, but given my current commitments, I wouldn’t be able to give this the attention it deserves.” No one needs to know that your current commitments involve finishing that knitting project you’ve been putting off for the last month. Writing the excuses out can help you see how unnecessary they actually are.
Get good at hearing no. A little truth here: Chances are, if you have trouble saying no, you don’t like hearing it either. These things are connected, and one of the reasons you may not like saying it is because when you hear no, you feel rejected or let down, and you don’t want to create that feeling for someone else. The solution? Become best friends with no. About five years ago I had the opportunity to work with a coach named Anese Cavanaugh, and one of her first assignments for me was an exercise she called “50 Nos.” The objective: Get 50 nos in a single day. To get them, I had to ask for some ridiculous things. I asked a stranger for a piece of gum. I asked someone on a crowded subway to give me their seat. I asked a bartender if I could have a glass of wine for free. While the exercise might seem silly, hearing no over and over again made it feel much less personal. It wasn’t a rejection of me — it was just someone expressing their own needs in the situation. If you’re doing something like trying to get your work published or accepted to a conference, you could try this exercise with query letters or pitches. See if you can get 50 nos. Even if you get them, you’ll likely get a lot of encouragement and feedback along the way that will make it easier to keep going.
Make a joyful gesture. When I was getting married, I had a small bachelorette weekend in Bermuda at a friend’s family home. But at the time one of my closest friends was pregnant and couldn’t travel. She had a legitimate excuse, of course — she literally couldn’t say yes unless her doctor made an exception — and I didn’t think twice about it, though of course I missed her. One night we went out for dinner, and as we sat down the waiter brought over a bottle of champagne my friend had sent from afar. This is a joyful, classy move whenever you decide you can’t (for whatever reason) be there to celebrate in person.
Working on saying no over the past few years has really helped shift my mindset from viewing it as negative word toward seeing it as the protector of my greatest joys.
Do you have any tricks for saying no joyfully? Please share them in the comments so we can all get better at this vital, joyful skill!