6 Ways to “No” Your Way to Focus

No is not negative, it’s necessary. If you have a hard time saying no, you’re not alone. People struggle with some common fears:

  • One of the biggest fears comes from a feeling of obligation. Do you feel you have a responsibility to say yes because saying no might reflect poorly on you? Do you let people “should” on you so you’re afraid to say no? Evaluate your assumptions and bust your beliefs about your responsibility to say yes.
  • Do you have a fear of missing out (FOMO)? FOMO causes the reflexive yes instead of a thoughtful no. At work, do you volunteer to do things because you fear you will miss out on a promotion or opportunity? Check in with yourself. Are you saying yes because of FOMO or because you have the capacity and saying yes is the right decision for you? More often than not, following the path of fear doesn’t serve our goals.
  • Do you fear other people’s reactions if you say no? Are you afraid to disappoint others or fear people won’t like you? How often do you say yes because you worry about what “they” will think? Perhaps you suffer from PTH. Our mentor has reminded us over the years that the Propensity to Help (PTH) is not helpful!

No is a necessary tool to keep you focused on your own goals. No is a moment of clear choice. When you say no to something that does not serve your goals, you free yourself to focus.

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

In his book Give and Take, organizational psychologist and professor Adam Grant emphasizes that “the ability to say no is one of the most important skills one can have.” He recognizes no as necessary to protect time for your own goals and agenda because without your no, other people dictate your schedule, hijack your focus and limit your accomplishments.

In order to free your focus, here are six strategies to support you in saying no:

  1. Ask people to email or text their request so you can get back to them. When we are in the moment, we instinctively agree. It’s perfectly reasonable for you to say that you need to check your schedule before answering. Give yourself time to reflect on whether the request is the best use of your time and focus. Responding with “I’ll think about it” puts you in control, suggests you are actually weighing important factors, and most importantly, allows you the opportunity to think things through.
  2. Set clear boundaries for yourself before you are asked to say yes. Three boundary-setting elements that we coach our executive leaders on include knowing your definition of success, your purpose, and your responsibilities. When you are clear on what success means to you, your purpose, and your role, “no” becomes much easier.
  3. Put the “monkey” back on the person asking. This is highly effective in a work situation as part of an expectation-setting conversation. Let’s say you are being asked to work on multiple tasks –more than you can handle. You can respond positively with, “I’m happy to do X, Y, and Z; however, I would need three weeks, rather than two, to do a good job. How would you like me to prioritize what I focus on first?”
  4. Be assertive and courteous. You might say, “I can’t right now but will let you know when and if I can.” While polite, this approach puts you in a position of power by changing the dynamic. You’re taking charge, telling people you’ll let them know when and if you can.
  5. No excuses. Offering an excuse may seem like the polite way to decline a request but it gives people the opportunity to change their request so that your no is no longer justified. By simply thanking people for their request and telling them that you can’t agree to it, you prevent them from arguing with you.
  6. When possible, offer an alternative. If you are under pressure to say yes but want to say no, you may consider downgrading a “yes” to a “yes but…” as this will give you an opportunity to condition your agreement to what works best for you. Sometimes, the condition can be to do the task, but not in the time frame that was originally requested. Or perhaps you can do part of what has been asked. Better yet, suggest someone else who might be better qualified or more available.

Your “no” muscle is probably out of shape and can use some development. We encourage you to make a Y/N record, just like you would use to capture repetitions of an exercise at the gym. Track when you say yes and when you say no. Then go back and review the record. Which beliefs were true and what was imagined? How did the yes or no work out?

Build up your “no reps” to free your focus, live your purpose and have a life that honors who you are.

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