The Small But Soul-Crushing Word You’re Using Every Day

I am notoriously bad at over-committing to things, at misjudging my time and packing my schedule full of tasks I can’t possibly accomplish. My wife will tell you this. So will my calendar. I am obsessed with yes.

Photo Credit: Magh via Compfight cc

I don’t know why I do this. Maybe it’s my people-pleasing nature, my need to be liked and accepted — some accomodation for never being the popular kid in middle school, I guess.

This is why, admittedly, I started a blog. I wanted attention. Sure, I wanted to help people, too, but my motives were far from pure. Which was why when people started asking for my time, I couldn’t say no.

And for the first couple years of pursuing my dream, and even now sometimes, I say yes to too many things. But I’m starting to believe there has to be a better way.

“Yes” can become an awful addiction

I have to tell you: I believe in “yes.” I am a fan of the word. Far too often, we say no to things because we are afraid or unsure. We don’t know what might happen, so we decide to play it safe. As a result, we miss what could have been an amazing opportunity.

So for the longest time, this was all I said. Yes.

  • Want to go the movies at midnight? You bet.
  • Want to start a business with me? Sure.
  • Want to play guitar in our band, even though we don’t have a drummer. Why not?

Yes. It was my world. And it was a lot of fun. Yes got me into a college I never visited, a place that changed my life. It led to helping a couple of girls move one Sunday afternoon when I would’ve rather been napping, which led to meeting my future wife.

I believe in yes. Sometimes.

After deciding to be a writer, I took it upon myself to meet up with just about every writer in the greater Nashville area. Saturday mornings and Monday nights and Wednesday lunches were all reserved for chats about the craft.

It was fun to meet so many people who were in the trenches with me. There was just one problem, though. I wasn’t writing. I was talking about writing, even dreaming about it. But I wasn’t doing a whole lot of it.

One day after two and a half hours and eleven cups of coffee between the two of us, a friend said to me, “You know, Jeff. We just spent over two hours talking about writing, time that we could have spent actually writing.”

After that day, I started saying no.

The liberating power of the word “no”

There is an indescribable emotion that accompanies saying no to something you don’t want to do. It feels liberating.

When I stopped saying yes out of obligation to requests to “pick my brain” or connect for no real reason, I unlocked a hidden treasure. Suddenly, I had more time to write, the thing that I secretly wanted to do, anyway.

It was a beautiful thing.

Here’s the way my friend Lysa Terkeurst describes a similar situation:

I remember the first time I had to decline a friend’s invitation to meet at the restaurant with the indoor playground because I’d scheduled writing time. I felt so foolish. I wasn’t a writer to her. Shoot, I wasn’t a writer to myself either. I’d never written anything of any kind of significance — unless you count that little book of poems I’d made for my mom when I was ten, the one with the poems written on parchment paper with burned edges. I was totally into burned edges back then.

I think we can all relate to these moments of hesitation when we want to commit to something we must do but feel conflicted about something we should do.

So let me ease your conscience. If you are a writer or an artist or someone called to do important work in this world, you have to say no. At some point, somewhere, you will not be able to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. It’s impossible.

So what will you do then? Will you give up, having a mental breakdown due to your stress and inability to fulfill all the demands on your time. Or will you embrace the powerful of a beautiful no?

We don’t say no for the sake of saying no. We say no to something good so we can say yes to something better. [Tweet that]

Every day, we have an opportunity to choose our craft, to grab hold of this thing that we were put on the earth to do. For me, that’s writing. For you, maybe it’s telling jokes or raising three little kiddos in the suburbs. I don’t know.

The point is this: are you saying no to the urgent so that you can say yes to the important? Or are you doing what most of us do? Are you saying yes to too many things and slowly falling apart inside?

Here’s a closing thought, again from my friend Lysa whose book The Best Yes comes out this week:

The decisions you make determine the schedule you keep. The schedule you keep determines the life you live. And how you live your life determines how you spend your soul.

If you’re ready to start taking writing more seriously, join me for a free, no-pitch webinar on “Mastering the Habits of Prolific Writers” where we’ll talk about what it takes to start writing on a daily basis. Click here to register.

Have you ever said no to something urgent so that you could say yes to something important? Share in the comments.

87 thoughts on “The Small But Soul-Crushing Word You’re Using Every Day

  1. You n me both. I still struggle saying “no” to someone. I don’t even think it’s about people pleasing for me anymore, it’s more like “I know that I can do that so why not?” and they I over commit myself. I guess just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you have to…

    1. “it’s more like ‘I know that I can do that so why not?'”

      Exactly. I have to constantly tell myself that I must get my agenda done before I help someone else finish theirs. Of course, we also must allow ourselves to be interruptible, but we cannot do it in excess or we end up losing in the end.

  2. Immediately sent this to a struggling friend. We were just emailing eachother about this. About how we need to say no but feel like that could have been *the* opportunity. There will always be opportunity – we have to seize the writing, always! Thanks Jeff. 🙂

  3. I am a serial over-committer, and I find it hard to say no to people, so I’m no stranger to burnout. But slowly I’m learning. Sometimes it’s right to say no. And sometimes it’s right to say “I can’t do what you’re asking, but here’s what I can do.” I’ve been surprised at how that response can be as equally well received as “Yes.”

    Jeff, I really like your statement, “We don’t say no for the sake of saying no. We say no to something good so we can say yes to something better.” That’s a really important thing to remember. Thanks.

  4. I couldn’t agree more! My wife is still learning the ‘no’ word, but it’s one I had to get comfortable with years ago or I wouldn’t have got any writing done…now she’s learning it too, her writing is benefiting.

    ‘Yes’ to something better, perhaps, but certainly something more to our personal liking. And when we get to write, we get to be more ourselves. Or I do, at least. Thanks for reconfirming!


  5. Oh my. I am starting to look at my schedule for the fall and realized I have to drop some activities or I will never really be a writer. These include “important” activities like a faith sharing group and urgent activities like volunteer work with a local women’s club–but even more important is fulfilling my mission of being a writer. Your statement “Are you saying yes to too many things and slowly falling apart inside?” has the ring of truth.

  6. Wow – You’re spot on. I just released a book called Freedom From Yes! so I’m definitely on the same page! As a former people-pleaser it was almost as if I was physically unable to say no! And on the odd occasion I did, I felt bad for days after! No more. These days I’m just honest and tell them no if I have no interest in whatever it is or don’t want to prioritise it. Life is much nicer now! Thanks for the reminder that we all need to include NO in our vocabulary a lot more!

  7. Jeff-my wife once encouraged me to pencil time for myself in my day planner before other people spent my time for me. That’s when I first started becoming more comfortable with “no.” I hate disappointing people but love achieving my goals. Thanks for a great post.

  8. It’s a tricky problem. There’s that old joke about the daughter, upon having gotten pregnant once again, being chided by her mother, “When will you ever learn to say NO to a man?” Whereupon the daughter replies, “I did. But this latest guy was so cunning — he asked me if I had any objections.”

  9. Her book is brilliant.. thks for writing this from a male perspective. Too many people are people pleasers, both mean and women. Way to go.. loved reading this this morning! xo love bonitarose in FL

  10. I was once told my mom was calling me from the next room. Since the deliverer of the message was my brother, I chose to disregard what he said. I said “No, she’s not.” And I didn’t go. I didn’t realize it was urgent, if she even did call me. I said yes to sleep instead. Sometimes our decisions can have lasting consequences. I never did find out what she wanted.

  11. Thank you Jeff for the insight, it is always a pleasure reading what you write. This post reminded me of Yes Man, with Jim Carrey. It shows how fun though dangerous always saying yes.

  12. I still have trouble saying yes. I often say, “yes” only to have to back out later. This has been my biggest challenge recently. The more I pray on stuff and seek God’s guidance, the more I say, “yes” to the good stuff in life. Thanks for the good words Jeff. This topic has been on my mind a lot recently.

  13. We learned from one of our kids: When our older son was 6, he explained that he really needed a quiet day at home every weekend, since school was so intense. We wrote down “Quiet At Home” on the calendar for months in advance, and suddenly were free to say to friends, “We already have a commitment on that day; but can we schedule this lovely thing with you for another day?” I have taken that approach for twenty years, and it really helps.

  14. To write is what I quit my day job for. Finding freedom in saying “no” to saying “yes” to what God has asked me to write. Owning my story of losing 132 lbs to freedom, funding courage along the way. Loving the journey in between.

  15. Guilty as charged. Thanks for writing this. I am always worried about missing something important when I say no. But the over- committing thing doesn’t work either.

  16. I’ve struggled with saying ‘yes’ a lot too. At work, at home, really everywhere. I am a people-pleaser and I say ‘yes’ to spare others the feeling I get when I’m told ‘no’. It’s hard to say no. I don’t get that liberating feeling you get, Jeff. I get a feeling that I can only describe as cognitive dissonance, the feeling you get when you go outside your comfort zone. And what makes it worse is I’ve said no to family things to stay home and write, then I’ve put off writing and done other things. Then the guilt hits. Double whammy.

    Only thing I can do is keeping flexing my ‘no’ muscle and keep disciplining myself to write. The more ‘no’s’ I say, the more the feeling will go away.

    I’m glad you wrote this, Jeff. You have mastered the art of telling stories your readers can identify with. Great way to build a tribe.

  17. One the toughest times I had to say no was when I was trying to decide whether to go to college or not. I had people around me (still do) who kept saying, “college is an important step. Everyone benifits from it. Don’t be afraid.” But after looking at my heart and what God desired, I realized that I needed to say no. To say no to college, even in the midst of voices telling me, “yes”. I know now that saying no was the best decision I could have made! But that doesn’t make it any easier. 🙂

    1. Love that story, Annetta. Thanks for sharing. The truth is the answer is never just “No” or “Yes.” Often it depends on the circumstances, and you can’t just rely on other people’s expectations to tell you what’s right. So true.

  18. So timely. One of my Buddhist teachers Tsognyi Rinpoche just spent an afternoon basically saying the same thing. No is liberation. thanks for the reminder.

  19. OMG – Jeff, you always know WHAT to say (or write). You have no idea how timely and relevant this is to me.

    As much as I ENJOY helping my friends, I am unable to find time to create and plan MY website, which saddens me. (Gosh! I feel horribly selfish admitting it 🙁 )



    1. It’s not selfish at all, Kit. If you constantly help others and wear yourself down, you won’t be much help to anyone. Sometimes being selfless begins with being selfish.

  20. I’m a people pleaser too Jeff and far too reactive to every email, every tweet & every Facebook post. I feel obliged to support and cheer & wave the virtual pom-poms for everyone as they move towards their goals in chat forums and mastermind groups. So when I was trying to write my first book, I was forever getting distracted trying to ‘clear the decks’ of ‘replies’ before I could start. In the end, I had to say no (in the short term anyway) and get out of the house, away from all technology. I took my 10 x A4 legal pads and my purse and I walked to a local hotel where I sat for 4 hours a day for a week, drank their coffee and wrote 3 – 4 chapters a day. It was only way I could summon the discipline to go against my personality and say no to the ‘urgent but not important’ demands on my time. And it was totally worth it :o).

  21. Thank you for this, Jeff. So often we have too many choices, which can be a good thing sometimes, but generally, having too many choices takes me away from the things I truly desire. Bless you for this sweet reminder to choose well, and for the sweet reminder that it is okay to say “No.”

  22. I’m much older than you are Jeff, and I’ve been struggling with this my whole life. Lately, though, I have been saying no a lot more. For me it’s a matter of energy. At 54 years old I simply don’t have the energy to say yes to everything. At this point I am also working on saying “no” to several things I have made commitments to in the past that simply aren’t feeding my soul or my business right now. Your post was very timely! Thank you for helping me get up the courage to say “no” so I can say “yes” to more important (and profitable) things!

  23. Thanks for the great article, Jeff. I’m going to save this one and re-read it every so often. Goes hand in hand with living according to your priorities.

  24. I’m like you Jeff, a people pleaser at times. I have learned to say no to a lot of things but one area I need to get better at is Facebook groups! I have learned to say no to anything on Monday and Friday because those are my days to write.

  25. I totally relate, Jeff. It’s like a have this inbred fear of telling people “no” and seeing the look of rejection on their face. But you are right that there can be nothing more liberating than finding the ability to limit yourself to only the most necessary commitments. Good post.

  26. You know a lot of people task about the importance of time management, But I think the focus really has to be on decision management. We have to manage our decisions, not time, if you we manage our decisions, time management will take care of itself….thank you so much for being ever so insightful Jeff

  27. I still have this problem… I say yes to everything but most projects go on my back burner for that future day (which never comes) when I’m all caught up on everything. So I end up only helping out the really demanding people who keep pestering me, rather than the people I’d really love to work with.

  28. Jeff, your blog has all to do with writing and yet more to do with how to live lives that matter to others. I am glad I found this blog. I share the regular inspiration and tips with my ‘clan’ and how it has helped us grow into our full potential in our different lines of work. Saying ‘yes’ is as old as man himself the wisdom lies in knowing how to reduce it to the minimum- saying ‘yes’ to what matters most to you. In my case , I pay great tribute to my late father, a humble servant of the people , who taught me early on in my life that to be effective you had to commit 110- a hundred and ten percent to what you have chosen to do. As you can see, this 110% commitment will not allow you to say ‘yes’ to many things. It somehow liberates you. In 2011, I had to give up a more paying job that consumed all my time and I took up a less paying one with flexible hours because I wanted to write. The flexible hours have enabled me to write two novels and some published short stories in a short time! I am writing voraciously and I love it. The trade off is paying dividends.

  29. Jeff, this is exactly right. Overcommitting is a challenge every day. It is especially hard when there are so many amazing people around me doing incredible things. I have gotten better at choosing which things to help others out with or at least limiting my involvement in those projects to a doable amount. Also, waiting to work on them until I see the person who initiated the idea or proposal present me with something has helped a lot. You know the feeling, spending 3 hours researching a particular subject or strategy and then brining them the info, only to have the subject stare blankly at you when you show them. This has especially helped with any conversations at bars or with alcohol involved. This has helped these projects a lot.

    The problem now is discerning which of my ideas to work on. This issue is easier to deal with openly though, since it is an issue with myself and I don’t have to worry about hurting my own feelings. Too many of my own ideas is what is slowing me down at the moment.

    As always, you’re blog has been an amazing resource. Thanks again!

  30. Jeff, I too am a people pleaser but I am learning to say ‘no’. For about 12 years, I’ve studied fiction writing and have two books to my credit. I realize I need to develop some speed and organization to complete one novel a year. Thank you for sharing your challenges.

  31. I consider myself a bit of a selfish person (being an only child). I’m not really a people pleaser. Why I have trouble saying ‘no’ to doing stuff is because I feel guilty for turning down ‘opportunities’ and/or work. I feel lazy, in other words. Lazy for saying ‘no’ in order to make the time for writing.

    And thus, what I’m doing is making the assumption that writing is not work. That writing is ‘lazy time’.

    Isn’t this stupid? It’s crazy, right? It’s what society tells us, isn’t it? Seize every opportunity to be productive; being creative is not productive. Gah.

  32. I once took a challenge from a counselor (after all, I was spending good money for him to help me) to say no to everything for one week. No to invitations, requests for favors, all of it. It was freeing to find out that people were OK with it. Before I had worried how others would react, so I always said yes, until it had become a habit.

  33. Hey Jeff! Thank you for your blog and the work you do. I can relate so much to what you are saying here. It is a lesson I have been TRYING to learn for YEARS and it seems I have to keep learning over and over again! I have some follow up questions that maybe you could address in a future post… Such as, HOW do we say no to someone? Especially someone who might be an old friend or acquaintance. (Ex: I would be tempted to say “I’m sorry, I don’t have time this week.” ….and then keep saying that week after week! When really, I don’t want to tell them that I have made other things a higher priority because I really don’t want to hurt their feelings or offend them!) I know that I can’t let people’s possible emotions or reactions control my decisions, but I still want to show them respect. Additionally, do you have any tricks that help you determine whether or not you should make someone/something a priority and say yes to? One reason I am afraid to say no is because you never know what could come of something! What if some random person asks me for my time and then it turned out to be some awesome partnership in the future? Whereas, if I would have said no, that would have never come about! I mean, I know we can never be 100% sure about our ‘yes’s and ‘no’s, but how can we use wisdom to become more confident in them?

    Also, I will definitely be checking out Lysa’s book, as I’m sure she has a lot of helpful things to say about this as well 🙂

    1. It might not work for you, but for me it helps to listen to my gut feeling whether to say “yes” or “no” in different situations.. We can never know the outcome of what might have been if we would have chosen to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no’ and vice versa.. I think we just have to train ourselves to not think too much about “what if …”.. to kind of exclude some of the possible outcomes to not make decisions become even harder than they already are.

  34. I am gradually saying “no” to construction work (my lifelong career) as I move toward a career of writing and coaching. It is scary saying “no” to things you have always done. But, it is exhilarating too. Thanks for sharing.

  35. I could so relate to this, Jeff. I said yes to everything, afraid that if I didn’t people wouldn’t ask me again. What a treadmill! I’m still learning how and what to say no to, but am much better than I was. Thanks for the encouragement. It’s great to know that I am not alone.

  36. Thanks so much for doing this webinar Jeff. Love your blog and this subject is huge for me. I am a serious writer and try to write at least 6 hours a day. But family members don’t seem to realize this is my JOB. I am a writer. I’m getting better at saying no, but then I get the guilt trips. My friends get it, close family members, not so much. It’s fine if I write as long as I get everything else THEY need done FIRST. I hope your webinar helps me get stronger at saying no. I guess I need some magic words to convince people this is what I do.

    1. Completely relate to this, especially the guilt trips. When you know the magic words, please let us know!

      All the best with your work.

  37. I can definitely relate. I am such an introvert, but I love to help people and I’ll say yes to everything because “I want to be nice to them” and “They wanted my help!” and so on, but I get drained and stressed so quickly that it is not good for me. I have had to learn to say “no” more often than I would like, but it has made my life better. Now I have to re-learn how to say “yes” more often 🙂

  38. Hi, this is certainly anawesome material, thank you for posting.I have to admit I feel really identified in this particular subject, and that is exactly why I agree with this author; nowadays individuals should try to look for a great tomorrow and begin considering new ways of continuously growing.

  39. I know I should say ‘no’ to this fantasy football league I have to draft in on Friday. Sounds silly to even worry with it. As per usual, this will be the last ‘yes’ when i don’t want to say yes. It’ll be my last ‘yes’ to anything that prevents my focus on the best. Of course, I’ve said it before like an alcoholic who keeps promising it’s the last shot.

  40. A similar issue I deal with when people constantly ask me to get together is not having a good reason to say no. Many of my friends know my schedule, but what they don’t understand is that reading and writing constitute “doing something.” To them those activities are just something you do when there’s no football on. I always feel a little ashamed telling them “I have work to do,” because I know in their minds I’m just flaking out.

  41. I relate to that so much Jeff…Thanks for reminding the liberating power of the “no”. As you mention, so many times we say “yes” just trying to pleased others or to be liked and accepted, but we forget that in the way we are saying “no” to ourselves…And it is important to find the courage to say “yes” to ourselves, even when some times that means saying “no” to something else. People who love us will understand.

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