Why Learning to Say No is So Powerful

Saying “yes” to almost everything requested from us feels safe, avoids conflicts, and takes less time than pausing to decide whether or not that request is truly important and valuable. Too often we are just so darn busy that we don’t have the time to stop and think about much of anything and so we default to our standard answer, “yes”. That used to describe the way I was, but not today. That’s why I’m learning to say no as my default answer.

As part of our quest for success, we are often conditioned to say yes to every opportunity. But learning to say no gives us the power to determine what's valuable to our work and personal lives. Here's why I'm learning to say no as my default answer.

What Made Me Change My Mind?

Saying no, thoughtfully, may be the most undervalued action of our time. In our world of relentless demands and infinite options, we really need to prioritize our tasks and responsibilities so that they can add the most value to our work and personal lives. That means deciding what to do more of, less of, and what to stop doing altogether. Saying no gives you the time you need to do just that.

How Reflection Beats Reaction

Ok, in the event that a fire breaks out in your office building or your basement at home, don’t sit around and debate whether or not you should run out of the room, call for help, or at least find a fire extinguisher to start fighting the flames. There are some times when reflection makes a whole lotta sense. In this example, uhhhh, not so much.

But it’s true that we do have a tendency to react to what’s right in front of us, whether it truly matters or not. More than ever, we’re prisoners of the urgent.

Prioritizing things requires reflection and reflection takes time. Many, many of the people I meet are so busy racing around just to keep up that they don’t believe they have time to stop and think about much of anything, let alone the really important stuff.

Truth be told, there’s an adrenaline rush in saying yes. Since many of us are addicted to the speed of our lives, that adrenaline rush keeps us dependent on our constant busyness. We make the mistake that activity is productivity. But as Gandhi once put it:

A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.

“No” Has a Lot of Real Value

Making the choice to say no requires that we regularly step back from the edge. It’s only when we pause and do that, that we can say no to the next urgent demand or source of instant gratification. We need to give ourselves the space to reflect and assess in order to make sense of what we’ve just experienced in order to make a good decision.

Taking that time also allows us to collect ourselves, refuel and renew, and to make a conscious course correction that ultimately will save us time and even money.

What Does Stress Have to Do with All of This?

When we’re stressed, the people pleaser comes out in us. I’m not saying you should never help anyone out or put in a little extra elbow grease to do a job well, but chronic “yessing” can lead to a life of misery and pain.

I believe that we’re good, and we’re capable, and we’re an unstoppable force, but when we fear disappointment, we find ourselves saying yes to everything that’s asked of us. And, of course, that leads to stress. We know that is the truth! Just think about today or yesterday or well, any day!

Over time, that can lead to bitterness and even guilt. Think for a moment about your life. I know I did of mine. I had a hard time remembering a time when I didn’t always try to accommodate everyone else’s priority, even over my own. It used to happen all the time at work and certainly in my family life too. It has a way of becoming your default position and you don’t even realize it. No is the “new yes” for me.

“Gary, What Does This Have to Do with Personal Finance?”

At this juncture, you may be asking that question. But here’s the thing, your time is money! I was guilty of giving my time away so often I look back and think that it may have contributed to my failed marriage and was a reason for my divorce. Wanting to “get ahead in my job” may be the reason I did such a thing, but it was more of a reflex than a straight forward strategy.

Making rash and quick decisions all the time and deferring to yes more often than not can cause harm and damage. This is especially true when it comes to money and family decisions.

Impulses sometimes are overwhelming and adding in the people pleasing factor along with it is a recipe for personal disaster. Loaning money to a needy friend, partnering in any deal and forking over a check when you do it, or simply just throwing your hard earned money into the office basketball pool or communal lottery ticket just because everyone is doing it is a real mistake. A mistake you may be making every week or even every day!

So How Do You Start to Change?

The first thing you can do is to learn and master the word no. Say it right out loud. You should repeat it over and over until you can start saying no first, and not apologizing for it. Memorize a few different ways to say no so you’ll have something at the ready. Lead with no, and you’ll start to have fewer items on your agenda, reduce your risk taking, and see the quality of what you spend time doing increase! You can still reflect in almost every case and change your mind. It will happen, but when it does it will be a well thought out decision that reduces stress and is done from a place that isn’t only from emotions.

Try to recognize right away whenever you’re asked to do something that you don’t want to do, don’t have the time to do, don’t have the money to do, are untrained to do, or are tasks that just don’t move the needle forward in your life. It’s ok to do that. Learn to say:

I don’t want to, no thank you; I appreciate you thinking of me, but no.

There’s a trap of saying yes first. Because once you commit, you have to follow through. One of the worst ways to break trust and confidence is to not follow through with what you say you’re going to do. If you respond with maybe or let me think about it, you will most certainly feel guilty later and talk yourself into it, and end up saying yes.

“No” is a Big Tool in Your Toolbox!

I learned from several people over the years that you should never push people into a corner nor allow yourself to be pushed that way either. But, I was at times guilty myself of some pushing and I am not proud of it.

Years ago I had a very bright woman working for me whom I would often ask to do some extra work project, stay late, or even change her day off etc. whenever I needed some help or just didn’t really want to do something myself. One day she asked me why I always seem to ask her and not someone else who was just as qualified to help. It struck me at that moment. I answered, “Because you always say yes!” I was taking advantage of her for sure and I was often having the same thing done to myself!

To gain respect from others is pretty simple. It’s comes down to this: let others know that you make most decisions based on thought and rationality. When you commit to something, you are committed 100%. You are not just following the crowd and that even when you can see someone else’s perspective on something, it doesn’t always mean you think it’s the right course of action for you. Unless you are in the military, you can say no.

Final Thoughts

Many years ago, I worked in a big corporate office where people came and went almost every week to new assignments, new jobs, and even retirement. In almost all cases, I was asked to contribute to a “parting gift” for them and that was true even in the cases of people I barely knew and never spoke with. My default position of “yes, sure” and handing over cash was brainless and something I really couldn’t afford back then, but of course I did it anyway. You probably have done that very same thing.

The funny part of that is this. One day, a senior employee was retiring and accepting his gift before he went on his way. What he said still gives me a chuckle:

I have worked in this office for over 25 years and I have contributed to many, many farewell gifts over that time. I just hope that whatever is in this box will have me break even with its value!

Perhaps I wasn’t alone is my habit of saying yes.

Do you default to yes as your response to just about anything? Do you find yourself regretting that and being stressed and distracted because of it? Have you made bad decisions from always saying yes and has that cost you time and money? What do you think about learning to say no as your default answer?


  1. I don’t believe people say “No” often enough, because they are afraid of the reaction the might get. On the flip side, many don’t even attempt a question or ask for help because they are afraid of receiving a “no” answer in response. It’s a great tool and if used properly can keep your budget, time, and stress level in check!

  2. Prudence Debtfree

    This is something I had to learn too. I was burdened by a need of people’s good opinion, and saying “No” was unthinkable. Eventually, as a young mother, I learned that I couldn’t agree to everything or I’d neglect my children. It’s been gradual growth, but by this point, I’m not a slave to anyone’s good opinion. The strange thing is, that very change has earned me the respect I used to crave. I actually do say “Let me think about it,” and can follow through with a “No” later. That’s probably because I’m no longer a newbie at this. Great advice, Gary! “No” means you’re able to set boundaries, and boundaries are directly linked to health and finances.

    1. I can understand why you’re gaining more respect when you say “no” on occasion. It alerts people that you have priorities and important things to do, and you offer a “yes” when you see a real need or value in what someone is asking from you. That’s just being a smart person and it’s good to learn that lesson as early as you can. Thanks so much for your comments!

  3. I made a decision earlier this year that I’d respond “yes” when someone needed help with something. Well, that wasn’t the best of decisions. 🙂 I’ve had to now back out of a couple things and start saying no. I found that I was bouncing between too many things and it was impacting my effectiveness. So now with a smaller number of commitments I can throw myself into them better.

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