Welcome back to my four-part series on ending overwhelm. Part one was all about understanding your capacity. Part two was focused on doing less. Today, I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how we can learn to say “no” more often.
Feelings of overwhelm often directly correlate with being over capacity. We have too much on our plates. Ask yourself this question: how did this all get on my plate in the first place?
Some of it, of course, just ended up there because it’s part of the job. You didn’t sign up for your commute to work; it’s simply part of having your particular job. You didn’t sign up for making dinner most nights; it just turns out that you’re the one home first and skilled enough for the task.
But some of the things on your plate you did sign up for. Someone asked and you said “yes.” Those are the things I want to look at today.
Why do we say “yes” to the things we say “yes” to? Here are a few potential answers. See if any are a fit for you.
We say “yes” because:
- We want to appear amiable and helpful, and avoid seeming difficult
- We want to be liked
- We want to avoid hurting people’s feelings
- We feel guilty saying “no”
- It’s just how we were raised
- It’s easier to put ourselves out than to put another person out
- We know we’ll figure out a way to make it all work, even if it causes us stress
- We have a hard time setting and holding boundaries
- Saying “no” feels confrontational or unkind
- We were so excited to be asked that we said “yes” before I we really thought it through
- If we say no, people may stop asking
Here’s a quick test to see if saying “no” is an underdeveloped skill for you: take a look at your commitments for the next 30 days, including tasks you have agreed to do for others and places you have committed to be. How many of them do you now wish you could back out of or secretly hope will be cancelled? Are you already cooking up excuses or lies in order to avoid this commitment? If you see this pattern, even just a little bit, I believe you’re saying “yes” too much and saying “no” too little.
A few years ago, a client (I’ll call her Cheryl) was sharing with me that she was feeling awful about a girl’s weekend that was coming up a few days later. She had committed to going several weeks before but as the details of the trip slowly came to light, she realized that this was not the trip for her. Now she was going through the gut-wrenching process of trying to figure out a way to cancel. Could she say one of her kids is sick? Could she blame it on a fictitious business trip her husband suddenly needed to be on?
She didn’t want to lie but she also couldn’t bring herself to tell the truth: that she had been so excited to be asked to join the trip that she didn’t ask the important questions that needed to be asked to make sure this was the right trip for her. As she got clear on what motivated her spontaneous “yes,” she could see that she had a deep desire to feel belonging in her friend group and to demonstrate that she valued their friendship. Cheryl realized that committing to things and then later backing out was a pattern in her life, and one that she no longer wanted to repeat.
We’ve all faced a similar dilemma, maybe many, many times.
That day, Cheryl drew a line in the sand and declared that she was, from that day forward, going to become someone who only committed to things once she fully knew the details and only if she was absolutely sure she was a “yes.”
She fessed up honestly to her friends, letting them know she would not be joining them, why she’d mistakenly committed in the first place, and offered to pay for any costs that would be incurred by her cancelling.
The real work, however, was getting clear with herself about what all of the haphazard “yeses” in her life were costing her (stress, drama, money, time, etc.) and how she could develop the ability to slow down in her life so that she could become more discerning about what she committed to.
The 24-Hour Maybe
The strategy that we developed during that session was called The 24-Hour Maybe. When someone invited Cheryl to something, she learned to develop the habit of saying “Maybe. Can I let you know in 24 hours?” This bought her the time to ask more questions and to think through whether she had the time for this commitment and whether she actually wanted to do it.
Here’s the takeaway: if you realize that you need to learn how to say “no” more often, start by first learning to say “maybe.” “Maybe” creates a pause so you have time to check in with yourself. “Maybe” is non-confrontational if you’re someone who finds it really difficult to say “no.” “Maybe” tells the people in your life that you only say “yes” to things once you’ve really thought it through. It honors the person asking but it also honors you.
Is it a Hell Yes?
During this 24-hour maybe, you have time to pause to check in with yourself before committing. This will give you the space to try on some of these strategies:
- Follow this rule: if I’m not a “HELL YES” than I am a “HELL NO.” Knowing there is only so much of you to go around and only so many hours in the day, realize that anything short of a full-body “yes” needs to be a “no.” Eliminate any version of “ya, I guess so” or “I probably should.” It’s either “hell yes” or “hell no,” nothing in between.
- Rate the invitation on a scale of one to ten. If it’s a 7 or under, then you’re out. It’s got to be an 8, 9 or 10 if it’s going to get your time and energy.
- Think about why you’re saying yes. In Cheryl’s case, she often said “yes” because she thought it was what was best for the friendship. Are there other ways you could produce the same result by committing to something that works better for your life? We often think there are just two choices. Is there a third way, maybe even a better way, that you’re not seeing yet? Could your 24-hour pause give you time to get creative about offering a better solution?
Later this month you’ll get to hear an interview with Melissa Urban, the co-creator of Whole30 and the author of The Book of Boundaries. I love this book! I’ve already sent this book to several people who I know struggle with setting boundaries but it’s honestly a must-read for all of us. What I learned from Melissa in our interview and in her book is that boundaries are how we protect our limited resources.
You are a limited resource.
There needs to be a fence around your time, energy and mental capacity. We first figure out what matters to us, which was a big focus of last week’s episode about doing less, and then we protect those things with our boundaries.
If boundaries don’t come naturally to you, try scripting them out. This is exactly the approach Melissa takes in The Book of Boundaries, which includes over 130 scripts with exact words you can use to set a boundary in all sorts of scenarios. Be ready for pushback and an inevitable negotiation that is likely to ensue. If you’re stumped, throw down the 24-hour maybe. Give yourself time to regroup and re-establish your boundary.
Check in with yourself about why you say “yes” to the things you commit to. Get curious about what drives you. It’s universally human to be motivated by a need for safety, love, belonging and esteem. How else could you get these needs met without taking on more than you can handle?
Notice if you’re someone who is constantly cancelling or rescheduling. That’s a good indication that you say “yes” to too many things.
Build the habit of the 24-Hour Maybe. Take some time to pause, reflect and investigate before you commit. Get all the details so you know what you’re getting into. Check in to be sure you’re a “hell yes.”
Finally, set boundaries that honor you… your rest, privacy, space, free time, and values. Develop the skill of boundary setting with practice. It takes lots of practice to become a pro boundary maker and holder. But most importantly, surround yourself with people who honor your boundaries.
I hope you found these insights helpful. Stay tuned for part four, coming next week, when I’ll be diving into creating an alert system so you know when your train is coming off the tracks.
ABOUT KRISTEN MANIERI (COACH, HOST OF 60 MINDFUL MINUTES)
Kristen Manieri is a coach who works with teams to increase both productivity and wellbeing. She also helps individuals navigate transition with clarity and confidence. Her areas of focus are: stress reduction, energy management, mindset, resilience, habit formation, rest rituals, and self-care. As the host of the weekly 60 Mindful Minutes podcast, an Apple top 100 social science podcast, Kristen has interviewed over 200 authors about what it means to live a more conscious, connected, intentional and joyful life. She is the author of Better Daily Mindfulness Habits: Simple Changes with Lifelong Impact. Learn more at kristenmanieri.com/work-with-me.