When to say no

I don’t like trite formulae for success. But – when my life was overloaded – this saying made me stop and think: If you never say no, what is your yes worth?

It makes a serious point and, years later, I’m still trying to apply its question to my time choices.

Time choices aren’t usually between right and wrong options. Our dilemma is as simple but difficult as this: should I do this good thing, or should I do that good thing? Both are worthwhile, but we shouldn’t do both. Yet often we can’t say ‘no’ to either. Instead of making choices, we squeeze everything into our lives, and, in return, become inefficient, worn out, frustrated and stressed.

So, let’s find a way to say ‘no’.

Why is saying no so difficult?

Guilt    If something is well within my abilities, I feel guilty at not taking it on. I don’t have time for it, but my mindset is: ‘I could do this, so should do this’. That’s bad logic. Could doesn’t mean should. There are a hundred things we could do, but we should do only a fraction of those. Guilt cannot decide our priorities.

We’d let someone down    This was a problem in church life. Maggie starts visiting elderly people in a nearby care home, then persuades her friend Maureen to visit too. They try to persuade others to come along, saying, ‘If only more would join us, we could spend time with everyone in the care home.’ But people don’t join them. Maggie and Maureen are overstretched, and urge: ‘This is important work. You’ve got to help us.’ At last some do. They haven’t the time but feel they can’t let Maggie and Maureen down. Visiting the elderly is good work, but they were already doing other ‘good work’ and now have little time for it. It’s been sacrificed, principally because they didn’t feel able to let Maggie and Maureen down.

We like to please people    From my earliest times as minister of a church, I realised I had power to persuade people to take on responsibilities: join a task group, attend a meeting, give money to a cause. It didn’t work with everyone, but a sizeable number accepted roles because they wanted to please me. That was helpful for me, but not always for them. They had other things to do, whether with family, leisure, work, or other activities. They were busy people. But they wanted to please, so didn’t say ‘no’.

We can’t cope with no-one doing it    A leader asks for a volunteer to take on a task. Heads go down. No-one speaks. The silence is deafening. Finally, George sighs, ‘Okay, I’ll do it if no-one else will.’ Why does George volunteer? It’s because George can’t stand the silence and can’t cope with no-one taking on the task. But George was already over his head with work so probably isn’t the right person for the task. Part of me wants to say ‘good for you’ to those who volunteer when others won’t, but it’s not good for them when they take on causes just because no-one else will. Especially if that means less time for the many things to which they were already committed. Neither embarrassment nor awkwardness is a reason to volunteer. We simply can’t fill every void that exists.

Personal ambition    People with drive and ambition often assume their work or responsibility limit is somewhere far ahead of where they are now. They can always take on something else. But most people don’t know they’ve reached their limit until they’ve passed it. And then they’re in trouble. Their drive to do more is commendable, but taking on too much only leads to problems down the line.

Overconfidence    Last week I listened to an interview with an American military commander who was reflecting on the war in Afghanistan. Sadly, he said, he couldn’t consider the 20-year conflict a success. Then he went on to describe (what he called) a dangerous ‘can do’ culture in the military. No matter how great or challenging the mission, the view was ‘we can do this’, as if anything was possible. If the strategists said there was only a 30% chance of ‘taking’ an enemy-occupied hill, they’d likely still charge up the slope. But it would cost the lives of many soldiers and the mission might well fail. Most of us don’t face life and death choices, but overconfidence – ‘I can take this on too’ – is a danger, not an asset.

So, what are the consequences of never saying no?

An unmanageable workload. When I talked about being over-busy, Hamish told me ‘all you need is to be well-organised’. Two years later he was in a senior role in an organisation, and working in his office in the early hours of the morning to meet a project deadline. When there’s more work to do than time to do it, even the best organisation isn’t enough.

An unfocused workload. When we don’t say ‘no’ we accept someone else’s agenda for our lives. We’re not prioritising what’s most important for us. That’s a bad strategy. We may succeed in a scattering of miscellaneous tasks, but fail in vital things that were uniquely for us to do.

We work outside our skill set. The big gain from making our own choices is that we play to our strengths. We do what we’re trained and skilled to do. When we accept choices made by others we lose that advantage, and struggle with tasks for which we’re not suited. If our church was looking for a new treasurer, and I agreed to take on the role, the church would be in financial chaos. I’m not a numbers person. Give me words to read or write, and I’m in my element. Give me a spreadsheet, and I’m lost. New challenges are good from time to time, but letting others define what we do is usually folly.

We experience serious stress. I can juggle two balls, and be relaxed enough to hold a conversation at the same time. Throw me a third ball, and I might keep them in the air but only with all my attention on the task. Throw me a fourth ball, and within seconds every ball would be on the floor. And perhaps I would be too. I could not juggle four balls. All of us can operate beyond our limits, but only for a very short time. After that we’re being damaged, and that’s always dangerous.

When should you say no?

When current obligations already fill your life    In theory you can always get more money, or more friends, or more possessions. But you can never get more time. I’ve often wished for 25 hours in the day, but there’s always been only 24. And when those 24 are full – including adequate time to sleep – fitting something else in only pressurises everything already there.

One way, though, to add a new thing is to throw out an existing thing. In an earlier blog I wrote about a friend who kept her house immaculately tidy by following that method ruthlessly. If she bought a new sweater, she got rid of an existing sweater. When she bought new shoes, she got rid of the old shoes. I could never be that severe, but it’s a principle which could be used to manage time. Providing, that is, you can be at peace with stopping something else. And that’s not easy. We may displease people by withdrawing our help, or leave no-one doing the task we’ve stopped. The new thing has to be weighed against the old things already filling our lives. Hard choices.

When important people would be hurt by saying yes    I’ve always been busy with studies, with church, with employment. It would have been very easy to miss the children’s growing up years. In part, I did. But, I hope, only in part. As often as I could I was home for dinner, listening to their stories, then tucking them into bed. Sometimes I watched them at swimming practice. When our son was about seven I drove miles to buy him a second hand Sinclair ZX81 (the most basic of computers). His work today is with electronics. When heavy snow was on the ground, I took one of our daughters on the back of my motorbike to deliver newspapers. (I’ve no idea now why she was safer on my motorbike.) I protected time so I could attend school concerts and athletic events. Later, when I travelled to dozens of countries, I sent them postcards, not so much so they saw a pretty picture but knew I was thinking about them. None of this was perfect, but we muddled through with a lot of laughter and togetherness. Those children are now adults, and also great friends.

Through all these years I was acutely aware that the time spent with the family would never come back. That sharpened my will when people wanted more of my time. To be away even more from my family was to impose a sacrifice on them as much as on me. Very easily we ask too much of people who care for us. Saying ‘yes’ to things may hurt most those who care for us most.

When your health would suffer    Being over-committed doesn’t directly cause conditions like depression. But taking on too much doesn’t help. We’re overtired and over-stressed. We don’t feel in control. We don’t cope. And our mental health deteriorates. Also, we can’t be experts at everything, so an overloaded life will include work for which we’re not suited. Then we’re both time-pressured and out of our depth. Quality of work suffers, as does quality of life. That’s bad, very bad. And not survivable in the long-term.

We can’t just ignore these truths, grit our teeth, and plough on with a chaotic life. Our health matters. Abusing it has serious consequences, affecting not just us but everyone who depends on us. Guarding our health is a primary reason to work up the courage to say ‘no’ to things we shouldn’t be doing.

Many of us don’t find it easy to turn down new opportunities. We hate disappointing others, or leaving a task undone. We feel obliged to help.

Maybe cold-hearted people who don’t care about consequences have no problem saying ‘no’. For the rest of us, it isn’t a simple decision. We’re faced with things that must be done, and there’s no-one else to do them. So we compromise.

But let that be the exception, not the rule. We’re in trouble very quickly when we open the floodgates for anything and everything to take over our lives. Saying ‘yes’ can ruin us and others we love. Instead, be polite but say ‘no’. Your life will be richer for using that little two letter word.