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“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Warren Buffet

Last week a client I work with reminded me it was “The Ides of March” which I later looked up to refresh myself on the historical significance of and as I was scanning articles, I was also reminded that it’s around this same time of year that most people will have already quit or given up on their New Year’s resolutions.

That’s why if you’re in the market for a piece of exercise equipment, this is a great time to be looking at local advertisements as there are often people selling something they spent too much money on around Christmas or New Year’s and later realized they just don’t have the commitment to stick with. You might find a real bargain for that new treadmill or rowing machine which someone else paid way more for only a few months ago and then barely used after a failed New Year’s resolution.

As I thought about how long it’s been since I made a New Year’s resolution, I realized that since the COVID Pandemic started, I’ve grown more accustomed to thinking about the things I’m NOT going to do compared to the things I might have to do. So, in a sense I’ve established a list of things I don’t do or no longer do, rather than a traditional “to do” list. It’s the power of saying “no” and it’s a way of flipping the traditional resolution setting “things I’m going to do in the future” to a more empowering “I’m not doing that” anymore philosophy.

Something I work with many people on in counseling is to stop “people pleasing” which is another way of saying they have difficulty saying no to things or to advocate for themselves. When you say “yes” to too many things, it can lead to burnout, stress, and a lack of control over one’s own life. The power of saying “no” is often overlooked, but it is a crucial skill to learn for positive emotional wellness.

When you say “no” to a request, you are essentially freeing up time and energy to focus on things that are more important to you. This can include spending time with loved ones, pursuing a hobby or passion, or simply taking care of yourself. Prioritizing your time and energy in this way can lead to a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness in your life. By saying “no” to requests that do not align with your goals or values, you can stay focused on what truly matters to you. This can lead to increased productivity and efficiency in all areas of your life.

One thing I started saying “no” to since the pandemic began is standing in line. I’ve not stood in any lines since February of 2020, and it has been great! It was the need to social distance which initially got me started in this new life behavior, but it was actually a notion I had admired for several years before based on something I had heard about someone else.

Quite a few years ago we were visiting our daughter in California and one night my daughter and her boyfriend at the time (who is now her husband) invited my wife and I to a famous ramen noodle place in Santa Monica. We had to stand in line for about two hours to get a table in the restaurant as it was enormously popular and there was a line of people down the street waiting to eat noodles at this restaurant.

As we were standing there my wife asked our future son-in-law how his father would react to a wait like we were enduring. Our son-in-law said quite casually and matter of factually: “My dad doesn’t stand in lines.” I remember thinking instantly that was such a bold statement about a very different way to live, as if his time was too important to waste on something like we were doing for our place in line to taste the legendary local noodles.

So when the COVID-19 pandemic started and my wife and I avoided dining in public for more than a year, I realized that my life was improved by no longer waiting in line. I liked it so much that I told my wife: “I’m going to be like Chris’s dad and not stand in lines ever again.” It’s a change I’ve lived by devoutly ever since and I can’t even begin to imagine how many minutes, hours, and probably days I’ve added back to my life for things that are far more important to me.

Today I buy pretty much everything online but the couple of times I’ve gone into a retail store for anything, I’ve only done so if it wasn’t crowded, and I was pretty certain there would be no lines to stand in to check out. A month or so back my wife and I stopped at a pharmacy to buy some things on the spur of the moment and as we approached the front of the store to check out, I could see there was a line at the register. I told my wife I was putting our things down and leaving as “I don’t stand in line,” but just as I was saying that, another register opened and we were able to use that one with no one in front of us, so we bought our things and left.

My wife had rolled our eyes at me in the pharmacy when I boldly stated my new life mantra and later told me: “We can’t live the rest of our lives without ever standing in line again.” I said childishly: “Yes we can,” and she asked: “What if we have to fly somewhere?” I said my plan will be to save up enough money to charter a private flight or I’m not going. I got more eye rolls over that one.

I love not standing in line though because it reminds me of what’s important to me in life and what’s not. There will never be any noodles in the whole world so good that I’ll ever stand in line to eat them. If someday I find myself in a social gathering where friends say something like: “You HAVE to try these noodles, they’re to die for!” I will have no problem saying simply: “Sorry, I don’t stand in line.”

It's okay to say no

I’ve come to realize that my saying “no” to standing in line is a boundary I’ve established in my life, and I don’t cross that boundary ever. So far at least, there has been nothing I’ve encountered that is so important as to make me violate my new life boundary of never standing in line again and I’ve been immensely happy with this change in my life!

Boundaries are something I work with people in counseling about all the time because when your life lacks boundaries it can become quite complicated and unpleasant. You can think of boundaries as another way of saying “no,” and that can be vastly empowering in both your personal and professional relationships. By setting clear boundaries, you can avoid feeling overwhelmed or taken advantage of. This can lead to healthier, more sincere, and more fulfilling relationships in the long run.

If you’re not clear on your boundaries or you’re uncomfortable with telling someone “No,” then I encourage you to try it this week. You can try it at work for instance if you find that you’re being assigned work that is beyond your ability, or you know you just don’t have time to complete. If you find yourself in that predicament, you can try telling your boss why you’re not going to be able to do what’s being assigned. A boss may override your objection of course, but simply speaking up for yourself can be very empowering and it will help you get used to advocating for yourself more in the future.

More commonly I hear from people who are exhausted or burned out because life is just way too busy professionally and personally. Most often this is from a lack of boundary setting and feeling awkward or uncomfortable in saying “No.” When you say “yes” to everything you can become quickly overwhelmed and eventually this can cause burnout and leave you feeling quite frustrated and unhappy.

A simple way to start practicing the ability to say “No” to too many offers of social activities can be to reply: “I’m sorry I can’t make that” or “I can’t be there.” Replying to an invitation or offer in that way implies there is an overarching reason beyond your control in why you have a conflict in attending or participating, but I like to break that down and realize what it is I am actually saying.

When you say: “I can’t” you are saying I “can” “not.” Think of it this way, if a friend invites you to the movies and you reply: “I’m sorry I can’t make it,” you’re actually saying: “I can NOT make it” which is the opposite of course from “I CAN make it.” You are empowering yourself to make a choice, you can do that, or you CAN choose NOT to do that. Realizing this is what you’re saying is another great way to empower yourself and advocate for what’s truly priority in your life.

When I used to work in an occupation that required travel, it was common for colleagues to socialize after a day of work meetings by going to dinner in the evenings. There was one particular company I worked for where the travelers were exclusively men and a night out to dinner could include discussion or behavior I found objectionable or unethical. That was early in my career, and I quickly decided I did not like having to socialize or going to dinner with these colleagues.

When a work friend would pressure me to go to dinner in the evening, I would reply with my customary: “I’m sorry I can’t make it.” But sometimes my response was not acceptable to a colleague who might pressure me harder with reasons why I should attend. In those cases, I would say simply and more assertively: “I’m not doing that” or “I won’t be there.” Some could argue I may have cost myself effective networking, which was important for career progression, but that was never my experience and eventually colleagues realized I was not one to simply “go with the flow.”

I realize that saying no to colleagues might be a higher level of self-advocacy that you may not be ready for just yet and that’s entirely fine of course. But I encourage you to start out this week by saying no to just one thing that you know you really would rather not do. It might be something you just say “No” to yourself about and only you know, but it can be an important first step in boundary setting and liberation in your life. As you try it and see what happens, imagine then how your life might be different if you started saying “No” to bigger things in your life that you would rather not do. How much time would you get back, or how much more energy might you have to begin doing more of what you would rather be doing instead?

So that’s my challenge to you this week – say “No” to something, you’re worth it!

Have a great week!

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