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Learning to Say No: 4 Questions for the Busy and Overwhelmed

Moment to Myself

“It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” ~Henry David Thoreau

A couple of years ago my friends and I went on a weekend retreat to honor our dear friend’s 40th birthday. It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend filled with yoga and meditation at an ashram in the mountains.

But I had a serious problem with the retreat: I actually brought work with me! As an educator, it seems I am perpetually behind with my grading. And so I brought a whole stack of midterm exams with me to grade in my “free time.”

There I sat alone in the cabin while everyone else was hiking or chanting or taking a yoga class.

After grading just a few exams, it hit me just how wrong the whole scenario was. I was at an ashram in the mountains, for goodness sake, and here I was working.

I had so many obligations connected with my job and my children and my community that I felt my only option was to keep going.

And then I broke down. I started to cry as I thought about what I might be doing to myself. Can I go any further living like this, I asked myself.

I started to doubt my ability to handle the life I had created for myself.

I continued to cry until my friend Karen came back to the cabin. I confided in her that I was at a loss about what to do. I was extremely stressed out and saw no way out of it.

She started to ask me about what I had going on. Well, one issue was I had committed to attend a meeting months before I knew that my daughter’s band concert was the same night. And I felt obligated to go to the meeting.

Karen asked me what I was doing at the meeting: Was I running it? Was I speaking at it? Would it fall apart without me? Well, no, I admitted. I was just supposed to attend.

And what would happen if you canceled, she asked next. I thought for a moment and realized that nothing would happen.

So when I got back from the weekend, I emailed the meeting organizer and told her I had to go to my daughter’s concert. And guess what? It was fine; she said she completely understood.

Then I started really getting into the saying “no” mood. Next, I declined to take on a project I was asked to work on. I stopped myself from agreeing to be on a church committee.

I was going “no” crazy. But it felt wonderful. My stress level dropped dramatically and I felt free.

I still have a lot on my plate. But I’ve gotten to the point where I can differentiate between what I must do, what I really and truly want to do, and what I don’t need or want to do.

Another way of saying this is that I have learned to prioritize my time.

So if you tend to over commit like I did, slow down for a minute and ask yourself the same kinds of questions Karen asked me:

1. Do you absolutely have to do whatever it is you are contemplating taking on?

We do have to do many things…for our families, our friends, our jobs. But a lot of times we just think we have to do something because of a sense of obligation or because we’ve always done it that way.

To gain a different perspective on the situation, try taking a step back from the automatic thinking of “I have to do this” and ask yourself a few questions:

What would happen if I didn’t do it? Would everything fall apart? Or could things go on without my help?

2. Do you really and truly want to do it?

Sometimes we don’t even know the answer to this question. What do we really want out of life?

In order to prioritize our time, we need to know ourselves well enough to know what matters. And getting to know ourselves takes time, but a good starting place is again asking some key questions:

What kinds of activities make you happiest or relaxed, free, focused, content, connected, alive?

It helps me to think about the big picture of my life: What do I want to be able say I did with my life? This is kind of like my vision statement for my life. And then I can ask myself how individual activities fit into that overall plan.

3. What will you get out of it?

This doesn’t have to be a financial benefit or a plus for your career; it could be helping out the community or learning something new or spending time with your family.

But whatever you might get out of it, just make sure that it is really important to you.

It can be difficult to sort out when to put your priorities first over obligations to others. Sacrificing our time and our own wants for others is a part of life.

But if you sacrifice too much of yourself for others, there is nothing left over for you. And pretty soon you have nothing left to give others.

A balance between doing for yourself and doing for others is necessary. You can gauge if you are striking this balance by paying attention to your stress levels and how often you allow yourself to do something just for you.

4. How much time do you have to devote to something new?

The flip side of this question is: What will you have to give up to spend time on this new endeavor?

In the end, the very bottom line is whether or not it is a priority for you. Think about what you want to do with your life; how you want to spend your time; and what would make you happiest.

Discover that saying “no” to some things is absolutely liberating. It frees you up to focus on the things that are most important and really mean something to you.

Don’t follow my lead by getting so overwhelmed with commitments that you break down and see no way out. Follow my lead with my new approach and prioritize your commitments.

And don’t be afraid to say “no” even after you’ve said “yes.” Things happen; people change their mind; schedules change. That’s life, and most people understand that.

Asking yourself a few key questions about priorities will start you on the path to more freedom and more time for the things you really want to do with your life.

Photo by Ian Barbour

Profile photo of CJ Rising

About CJ Rising

A mother, educator, artist and adventurer, CJ Rising writes the blog Rising Daily about inspired living through authenticity, joy and creativity. She just published her first e-book Dream Big and Succeed: 10 Steps to Finally Getting What You Want, which is available on Amazon.

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  • jaylyn

    A friend who turned 70 a few years ago decided that, with years he had left, he needed to devote himself to doing what he was uniquely qualified to do. Anybody could be on a church committee, teach ESL, volunteer for a neighborhood project, but with his remaining years he would do things only he could do. For the last few years he’s concentrated on his scholarly research and spending as much time as he can with his 7 grandchildren. Life always has the possibility to change for the better.

  • Hi Jaylyn! Thanks for sharing this story–I love it! The idea of prioritizing your time by how you can best contribute your unique gifts to the world is really inspiring. And I fully agree that the possibility for change is always available to us.

  • ekanost

    great tips we all need to remember! if you’re not truly passionate about a commitment, you should cut it out of your life.

  • Woobsie

    well when I went on a ‘no’ binge because I was overwhelmed and couldn’t take all the demands anymore, I got fired from my job after being too ‘checked out’ for too long. Turns out I didn’t need it anyway and found out that I would be just fine, infact much better. Along the way I realized that I had a marriage to a job I couldn’t deal with, but it is way harder to leave those situations because you think there is no alternative. Sometimes there is!

  • Talya Price

    I know I am not truly passionate about being an English teacher. Really good tips.

  • Thanks for your comment, Talya! I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to work at a career you aren’t passionate about. But I was actually able to find that passion eventually by making big shifts in my attitude. I hope you do too in whatever your career is.

  • Thanks for sharing your experience! It’s great to hear that everything worked out for you. It has definitely been a journey for me to figure out that I don’t HAVE to do everything.

  • Thanks for your comment! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post.

  • lv2terp

    Great message! Thank you for sharing your learned lessons, this balance is crucial! 🙂

  • So glad you like the post! Thanks for commenting. CJ

  • dragonfly

    I love this! I feel like I get really into saying ‘no’ in spurts and it’s been a bit of trial and error, I feel like I have to be careful to not overly isolate myself from my community because being part of a strong community of support is important to me, but then before long, I’m overwhelmed and overcommitted again 🙁
    So this idea here of offering what one is ‘uniquely qualified to do’, nothing more, nothing less, could be such a precious tool of discernment for me, thank you.

  • Tim

    I’m overwhelmed at times, and I’m a teacher! Saying no is one of the most difficult things for me to do.

  • I completely understand! I hope some of my suggestions are helpful. Thanks for your comment, Tim, and best of luck with learning to say “no”!

  • EmilyW

    Inspiring reminder, and very relevant to my work life right now. I’m lucky to have a boss who recently told me it’s okay to say no to fellow employees assigning me tasks in areas that aren’t my specialty. My boss phrased it this way: A heart surgeon could easily perform general surgery – but his skills are best served performing as many intricate heart surgeries as possible.

    So now to avoid spreading myself to thin at work, I’m trying to stick to projects that best utilize my abilities. Thanks for the post, CJ!

  • I love your boss’s approach! Sounds like a great way to allow everyone to really flourish with their own talents at work. Thanks for sharing, Emily!

  • Guest

    Thank you for sharing this post. I used to have trouble saying “no” and I would get stressed out doing things I don’t want or need to do. Question #3 is a very good question to ask. Surprisingly, it’s a question I never really asked myself in the past. I would sacrifice my time and energy for others purely out of a sense of obligation yet there was nothing in it for me. I was left exhausted and frustrated. I am learning to say “no” to things I don’t want or need to do and it has been helping me to manage my time and energy effectively.