Sir Richard Branson once said, “I’ve enjoyed life a lot more by saying ‘yes’ than saying ‘no.’” Comedian and writer Tina Fey, believes you should “say yes, and you’ll figure it out afterwards.” Author Dan Brule writes: “When you say yes, the universe helps you.”
I’ll admit, quotes about saying “yes” sound a lot more motivational than those about saying “no.” But here’s the thing: learning to turn down opportunities can have an incredibly positive impact on your life, too. Saying “no” can mean more focus, better prioritization, and increased productivity. In the workplace, it can lead to more quality work, a refined understanding of your role, and improved morale.
And yet, people fear saying “no” because they don’t want to create the perception of doing the bare minimum or that they aren’t a team player. That’s a problem... and it’s time we fix it. But first, let’s look at the impact saying “yes” is actually having on our workforce.
why saying “yes” is actually much easier than saying “no”
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) shows the average Canadian worked about 32.75 hours per week in 2016. The good news is, that’s actually down - albeit very slightly - from years past. The bad news? It still puts Canada in the top 25 countries with the longest work weeks. A survey of 25,000 full-time working Canadians found that as work demands increased over the 20 -year period from 1991 to 2011, so did levels of stress. At the same time, the perception of life satisfaction dropped dramatically for respondents.
So what does that mean? Canadians are working harder and it’s having a negative impact on their health and quality of life. And often, the source of all that extra work is an inability to say “no” when new things get added to your plate. That’s because being agreeable - accepting work outside the scope of your day job or taking on projects that you don’t have the bandwidth to support - is easier than the opposite.
I know from first-hand experience. In the first couple of months of launching my freelance content creation business, I was fortunate enough to have a lot of new projects and potential clients come my way. It was exciting - particularly because the general perception of launching a freelance career involves grinding to find work; something I was fortunate enough to avoid.
So, as new work rolled in, I said “yes” to everything. Can you write email copy for our fashion company? Absolutely! Do you have experience with fintech? No, but I’m willing to learn! Any interest in ghostwriting some marketing content? You betcha!
I was new to the freelance world and excited to find myself quickly able to replace my income from my corporate job. But in saying “yes” to everything, I learned a couple valuable lessons:
1. I was actually losing money by focusing on the wrong projects.
If you’re not familiar with Pareto’s Principle (otherwise known as the 80/20 rule), read up: it will change your life. The basic principle is this: The optimal work set-up is one where 20 percent of your effort yields 80 percent of the results. At the same time, if the inverse is true, you need to revisit the projects that yield the most return and focus on those.
My problem in taking on so much work was that I didn’t have the time to prioritize my most important projects. Instead, I was giving everything equal due and that meant I had next-to-no time to find more of the high-yield opportunities that I knew had the biggest potential for me and my business. This same concept applies whether you’re a member of the growing contingent workforce like me, or working in a corporate job and simply looking to prioritize your workload.
For those in the latter position, employing Pareto’s Principle may not be a way for you to earn more money in the immediate, but it’s certainly a way of thinking about how you spend your time to maximize the impact of your work.
And that itself can lead to bigger opportunities (and more money) down the road.
2. I lost sight of why I launched a freelance career in the first place.
The other big problem was that I completely lost hold of any work-life balance. I left my corporate job to spend more time with my family and travel the world, but found myself cooped up in our Airbnbs in Paris and Berlin working for 10 to 12 hours a day on writing. Sure, I was making good money, but I had lost sight of the reason I chose to do this in the first place:
To be with these guys.
Reading this parable had a huge impact and helped me to refocus on what’s most important. I highly recommend you take a couple minutes to read it yourself. And again, the idea of improving your work-life balance to spend your time with family or seeing the world, of course, applies in the corporate environment, too. Those working in an office environment will find that saying “no” ultimately opens up more time. Not because you’ll have less to do necessarily (although, that can be a byproduct), but because the work you do fit into your work week has a bigger impact. And that itself ends up increasing your value far more than saying “yes” to every single request that comes your way.
but how do you politely say “no”?
There are a few strategies you can employ here, but this one is my favourite: Say “no” by saying “yes.” Often, one of the best ways to actually avoid taking on additional work is by being transparent about what projects you will have to sacrifice as a result.
Here’s an example: Say your boss asks you if you could take on a little extra work over the next couple weeks to help pick up some slack for a colleague who recently left. Now, you don’t want to outright say “no” to your boss - particularly when he or she is shorthanded and needs some support. At the same time, you’re already up to your gills in projects and can’t afford to add anything new to your schedule.
So how do you respond to your boss? With something like this: “Sure! I’m happy to help. Just so we’re clear though, taking on this extra work likely means I’ll need to push back my deadline on XYZ project by a few days. Are you comfortable with that?”
This way, you’re acting as a team player by saying “yes,” but not stretching yourself thin by over-committing to more work. Instead, you’re offering your boss an opportunity to re-distribute your workload to make room for the additional project.
Everyone wants to be a team player and that’s a good thing, but not at the cost of your own health, prosperity or happiness. For all the quotes out there on saying “yes” to everything, I’ll leave you with this great one from author Nea Joy: “By saying ‘yes’ when you need to say ‘no,’ you cripple the most important relationship in your life: the relationship between you and you.”
Start saying “no” more - see where it leads you.