Some things are urgent.1 Some are important. Some are both. Some are neither.
As you consider these possibilities, it’s pretty clear that you want to invest yourself into what’s important—not just what’s urgent.
That’s not so hard for things that are neither urgent nor important. They’re not significant like they would be if they were important. They also don’t press themselves upon you like they would if they were urgent.
So, things that are neither urgent nor important can—and should—fall by the wayside pretty easily.
But the same isn’t true for unimportant things that have urgency attached to them. It’s these things that press for more attention than they’re worth. And it’s these things that require you to develop the discipline to say “no” well.
Saying “No” Isn’t an End in Itself
But saying “no” isn’t an end in itself. Your goal shouldn’t be to have the most curmudgeonly, miserly disposition. That’s not what saying “no” well is about.
Saying “no” well stems from a recognition that “yes” and “no” are inevitably intertwined. “No” entails and enables “yes”; “yes” invites and requires “no.”
So, even if you say “yes,” that very “yes” is also a saying of “no.” And the key is neither to avoid nor to perpetually be saying “no.” Rather, it’s to say “no” at the right times, to the right things, and in the right ways to support the important things that you really need and want to say “yes” to.
As you work to identify what these important things are, questions like the following can be helpful:
- How much does something matter?
- For how long does something matter?
- In what context does something matter?
- To whom does something matter?
Still, once you identify what’s important and what isn’t, it can be especially hard to say “no” to the unimportant things that remain urgent. That’s why it can be helpful to a student of the art of saying “no” well.
Making a Start in the Art of “No”
A “no” can take any number of forms. But as you’re learning to say it better, you might find some of the following approaches helpful.2
1. Pause or Clarify
Pause or ask for clarification before responding to a new request. The additional information you receive because someone fills the pause or answers your question may help you craft a better “no.”
2. Check Your Calendar
Offer to respond after checking your calendar promptly. Doing so can relieve some pressure for an immediate “yes,” and particularly if you time block, you can also take better stock of how full your current slate of commitments is.
3. Say “No … But …”
Instead of saying “no” alone, say “no … but ….”
This formula can take several forms. You might use it when something isn’t important now but will be important later. In this case, with “no … but …,” you can communicate that you can’t commit yourself to something in one time frame but you can at some discrete point in the future.
I say “discrete point” because you want to avoid the disingenuousness of using “no … but …” to imply a future “yes” that you don’t actually intend to follow through on. As Greg McKeown correctly observes, “Being vague is not the same thing as being graceful, and delaying the eventual ‘no’ will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful.”3
Or for something that doesn’t rise to the level of importance (whether now or later), you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit in one way but you can in another. Or you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit but you know of someone else who might be able to help or another way of resolving the request.
4. Highlight the Tradeoffs
Highlight the tradeoffs of agreeing, and ask whether those are worth resolving. Sometimes, you may receive a request from someone who might not fully understand what the request entails. Once that’s communicated, the request might no longer appear worth while.
5. Consider Pruning Existing Commitments
Explore the possibility of pruning existing commitments. As you do so, you want to clearly do right by the individuals who will be impacted by your stepping back. It’s your commitment, so it’s your job to resolve it and not leave someone else in the lurch or feeling like they let you off the hook under duress.
“Resolving it” might mean giving significant advance notice or negotiating an alternative solution that’s just as good or better for the other party. Or it well mean following through with your prior “yes” to an acknowledged point of completion and being more careful about what you say “yes” to in the future.
Saying “no” is never an end in itself. It’s a means to a different end. But it’s also an indispensable means.
Without saying “no” in a way that corresponds to and supports the “yes” that you wan to say, your days are likely to get filled with the urgent—but not necessarily with the important.
For the basic suggestions that I’ve summarized here, I’m grateful to Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 108–10; Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York: Crown Business, 2014), 140–54. ↩
McKeown, Essentialism, 139. ↩