Shannon T.L. Kearns
Shannon T.L. Kearns
Say No To Say Yes
Shannon T.L. Kearns > Say No To Say Yes


The other day I talked about how institutions have to learn to start saying no, today I want to talk about the same need for individuals.

How many times in the last month have you said yes to something you really didn’t want to do? Now, I’m not talking about the stuff you don’t want to do but that you have to do; going to work, paying your student loans, cleaning the bathroom, etc. I’m talking about the other things: the after work drinks with co-workers that you don’t really like, the meeting for the committee you are on that you don’t love but feel bad about opting out of, the weekend plans that you go to out of obligation. All of the little things we say yes to begrudgingly.

We all face decisions like this every day. We face them and we say yes and then we kick ourselves later.

We have to learn to say no.

Sometimes it means saying no to things that are good, but that just aren’t the best use of our time. Sometimes it means saying no so that we can focus in on something that is more important to us. Sometimes it means saying no even when we let someone else down.

It’s hard for me to say no. I am a people pleaser. I want people to like me. I want to make them happy. I want to help and be useful. So I used to say yes to everything. Every coffee invite, every board or committee, every request. Until I realized that so much of my time was filled up with me doing things that I didn’t enjoy. And I was doing all of them for other people.

So I stopped saying yes so much and I started to say no. No, I won’t have coffee with you. No, I won’t be on the board or committee. No, I won’t go to that event. I’m not doing it to be selfish, I’m doing it to preserve my own health and wellbeing. 

What I’ve found is that saying no more often is actually better for me and for my relationships. It means when I do show up I am fully present because I have made a conscious decision to be there. It means that when I commit to a project I am all in because I made the commitment because it aligns with my values. It means that I have time to invest in the relationships that are the most important to me.

Sometimes I will still say yes to things I’m not super thrilled about but I do it because it matches with something else that is important to me. I don’t say yes just to say yes. I say yes because it matters that I say yes. I love my partner, so I’m going to go to that event even if it wouldn’t be my first choice on how to spend an evening. I love my friend so I am going to go to see his play even though I don’t love the play. In this case the yes is about more than the event, it’s about the relationship.

But the only way you can make your yes’s be about your values is if you have actually done the work to figure out what your values are.

Here are some questions that might be helpful:

  • Who and what are most important to me?
  • How do I want to be spending my time?
  • What are the activities that bring me the most joy?
  • What are the activities that most sap my energy?
  • What kind of legacy do I want to leave?

By saying yes to this, what will I have to give up to make it work? Is it worth it?

Along with this work about values we also have to take stock of the things we are currently doing that are no longer serving us.

List all of the things you are currently involved in on a regular basis.

  • Now list which of those things are optional. (And be really ruthless here. You might feel like the committee you signed up to be on is no longer optional, but really people drop out of committees all of the time.)
  • Of those optional things, which ones am I still excited about? Which ones still align with my values? Which of those things give energy rather than sap energy?
  • Which of the things on that list do I dread every time it comes around?

If you want to make room in your life to enrich your relationships, spend time on things that matter to you, and try new things you need to let go of things that are no longer serving you. It could be as simple as not checking your email as often or as life changing as quitting a bunch of the non-essentials so you have more time in your life.

Now maybe you’re saying that you don’t know what you want to do. You’re not sure. Well, I can promise you that until you free up some time and mental bandwidth you won’t have the space to figure it out. You have to say no to be able to say yes.

What can you say no to today?

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Photo Credit: Sean Davis Flickr via Compfight cc