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The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

Written by Leo Babauta
Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.
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It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments – you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time. That’s why the art of saying no can be a game changer for productivity.

Requests for your time are coming in all the time – from family members, friends, children, coworkers, etc. To stay productive, minimize stress, and avoid wasting time, you have to learn the gentle art of saying no—an art that many people have problems with.

Here’s some tips on how.

Benefits of Learning How to Say No 

What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger, or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

However, it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. When you learn the art of saying no, you begin to look at the world differently. Rather than seeing all the things you could or should be doing (and aren’t doing), you start to look at how to say “yes’ to what’s important.

In other words, you aren’t just reacting to what life throws at you. You seek the opportunities that move you to where you want to be.

Successful people aren’t afraid to say no. Oprah Winfrey, who is considered one of the most successful women in the world, confessed that it was much later in life when she learned how to say no.[1]


Being able to say no also helps you manage your time better. Warren Buffett views “no” as essential to his success.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” – Warren Buffet

The more you make “no” a part of your toolbox, the more it drives you towards success since you only have to focus on fewer things and can do them well.

Learn The Art of Saying No To Others

As we established, learning the art of saying ‘no’ is important to have a healthy and successful life. You do not have to be rude when it comes to declining someone’s request but understanding the importance of saying “no” and finding the right way to do it is important.

Here are some tips that can help you learn to say no to others in a polite and gender manner.

1. Value Your Time

Know your commitments and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you cannot do it.

Be honest when you tell them: “I just can’t now. My plate is overloaded as it is.”

They’ll sympathize as they are likely to have a lot going on and will respect your openness, honesty, and attention to self-care.


2. Know Your Priorities

Even if you do have some extra time (which, for many of us, is rare), is making a new commitment the way you want to spend that time?

For example, if my wife asks me to pick up the kids from school a couple of extra days a week, I’ll likely try to make time for it as my family is my highest priority. However, if a coworker asks for help on some extra projects, I know that will mean less time with my wife and kids, so I will be more likely to say no.

However, for others, work is their priority, and helping on extra projects could mean the chance for a promotion or raise. It’s all about knowing your long-term goals and what you’ll need to say yes and no to in order to get there.

You can learn more about how to set your priorities with this free guide, Create More Time Out of a Busy Schedule. It’s a guide to help you prioritize your everyday tasks in an organized way and end busyness. You can grab your free guide here.

3. Practice Before Saying No

Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word [2].

Sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.


4. Don’t Apologize

A common way to start is “I’m sorry, but…” as people think it sounds more polite. While politeness is important when you learn to say no, apologizing makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm and unapologetic about guarding your time.

When you say no, realize that you have nothing to feel bad about. You have every right to ensure you have time for the things that are important to you.

5. Stop Being Nice

Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying “yes” all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. However, if you erect a wall or set boundaries, they will look for easier targets.

Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.

6. Learn To Say No to Your Boss

Sometimes we have to say yes to our boss—they’re our boss. And if we start saying no, then we look like we can’t handle the work – at least, that’s the common reasoning.[3]

It’s the opposite – explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask them to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at once.


7. Pre-Empt The Requests

It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made.

If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look, everyone, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects, and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”

This, of course, takes a great deal of awareness that you’ll likely only have after having worked in one place or been friends with someone for a while. However, once you get the hang of it, it can be incredibly useful.

8. Take Time To Say “No”

Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them.

This will allow you to give it some consideration and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, try saying no this way:

“After giving this some thought and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request now.”

At least, the person will know that you gave their request some consideration.

9. Offer An Alternative Timeframe

If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to say,

“This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I don’t have the time. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].”


Next time they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.[4]

10. Be Sincere About Your Rejection

Don’t be insincere about your rejection to someone’s request. Often, the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you or at the right time for you.

You can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization, but say that it’s not the right fit or what you’re looking for now. Be sincere in your reasons for rejecting a request, as people can sense insincerity.

The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

5 Actions
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life
Practice Your Rejection: Practice the best way to decline someone’s request. Every situation is unique. But, if you know what to say and how to say when it comes to declining someone’s request, it becomes easy to say “no.”
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life
Know Your Priorities: It is better to make a to-do list at the beginning of the week. Prioritize your tasks to be constantly aware of what you have to do. Knowing your impending chores makes it easy to say no to others.   
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life
Apprehend the Requests Beforehand: If you have walked into a situation where you can apprehend a request coming, declare your unavailability beforehand. That way, you will not have to say “no” directly.
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life
Take Your Time: Instead of saying “no” right away, you can request some time to consider their request. You can decline the request with a valid reason if the timing is not right. 
The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life
Be Sincere: Always provide a sincere and honest reason for declining something. It is never good to lie when declining someone’s request since people can feel the insincerity. 

The Bottom Line

Saying no isn’t easy, but once you master it, you’ll find that you’re less stressed and more focused on the things that matter to you. No need to feel guilty about organizing your personal life and mental health in a way that feels good to you.

Remember that it isn’t about being mean when you learn to say no. It’s about taking care of your time, energy, and sanity. Once you learn how to say no in a good way, people will respect your willingness to practice self-care and prioritization.

Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com


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