I have never been one to say “no,” easily, partly because there were so many things I wanted to do, and partly because I was raised on a steady diet of “you can do anything you put your mind to,” and “there are always ways to make it work.” I was raised in the time of perfect attendance awards and in a culture that prized pushing gracefully through hardship (hey midwest, I’m looking at you).
But, over the last few years, I have gotten sick more often and recovered more slowly from illnesses that were inconvenient, uncomfortable, exhausting, and either manageable or preventable had I paused for long enough to try. But, I refused to pause. I didn’t feel like I could.
Overcommitting and pushing through illness had gained me almost nothing these last few years, and had cost me a great deal in terms of health and general enjoyment of life. After it took 8 months to recover fully from a bout of pneumonia, I decided to start saying “no.”
At one level, it felt counter-intuitive: saying “yes” to opportunities is supposed to be a jumping off point for career, family and social adventure. Or so a bundle of memoirs, memes and think pieces suggest. But, it turns out that real life is not an inspirational meme, and saying “yes” doesn’t open the door to adventure. It just made me feel like I was drowning.
This my Year of “No.”
It means loosely following three rules:
- No doesn’t have to be my final answer, but it needs to be the first answer (even if I don’t say it aloud at the time).
- Do not apologize, make excuses or put off the “no” (politeness is fine, but apologizing is not)
- Do not second guess the “no.” Let go of guilt.
I love the benefits of saying “no” so far.
Three months into it, everything feels better, less panicked and less stressed. My work is better despite serving on fewer committees and waging fewer battles, and I enjoy the people I work with more. My home life is quieter and more peaceful, as we as a family do fewer things since the main do-er of things has started saying “no” to some of them.
The Year of No has pared down my commitments to the truly required ones with a few I enjoy added in. It has meant saying “no” internally to my own plans to find a way to fit everything in. It runs counter to everything I have done previously in my life, but it has also meant realizing that just because something has always been done a certain way does not mean that it’s the best way.
I don’t want to imply that I am lazy or unambitious. Even with the “no,” I still do a lot at work and at home because there are things that required of parenting well and to keeping a roof over our heads. I still work very hard in a field I love, though that field is draining, I’m just not overcommitting to that work or to parenting.
Saying “no” regularly and without apology has meant letting go of some of my closely held assumptions. It turns out that:
- Saying yes does NOT make people like me more, and the converse is also true: people don’t seem to like me any less when I say no.
- I am NOT always the best person for every task or position. Nor do I need to be.
- It is NOT a sign of weakness to simply not do everything.
- I have NOT regretted a single thing I’ve said “no” too. I was afraid of missing out, but I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything.
- The work I say yes to (and the parenting) IS better quality when I’m not trying to go a million directions. It retrospect, this should have been obvious.
I have more time for the things I truly enjoy at work and at home. Ironically, given the “no”-ness of this year, I’ve got time now to pursue new ideas and more ambitious goals at work – with people who have the same goals. I have a better idea of what I want out of my life, and more space in my otherwise chaotic brain to think about things. I am more creative, and things feel more natural. I am happier.
To be clear, this isn’t some hallmark movie where a powerful/ambitious woman goes to the countryside, gets some dirt on her Italian leather boots and learns to slow down and blah, blah, blah. Like many people I am not a powerful exec of anything, and I have a distinct lack of Italian leather in my closet. However, there is a certain amount of privilege that saying “no” requires — I’m in the middle of my career, I have paid time off so I can take sick days, and I am happy with my position at home and at work.
I acknowledge this is more difficult for those at a different place in their lives. Nonetheless I think we can all benefit by using “no” as often as our lives allow, and for honestly and unapologetically evaluating whether or not we need to say yes each request that comes across our plates.