Saying yes is easy. Alarmingly easy.
Yes, let’s go to lunch. Sure, I’ll have another slice of cake. Of course, I will serve on that committee.
If you’re anything like me, that last affirmative statement has been spoken even when your head gave you pause.
Sometime during my undergrad years at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, I began saying yes to any and all commitments that came my way. As a journalism major, it began with freelance writing opportunities and internships. Then it encompassed group projects in (and out of) the classroom. From there it blossomed into community involvement of varying shapes and sizes. At that point in my life and my premature career, I was hungry for any opportunity that pushed me forward.
My personal and professional diet of yes continued to grow after college — especially after I made the switch from newspaper reporter to public relations professional. In many respects, I returned to the ground floor, feeling the need to prove myself as I learned the PR craft. As a result, yes quickly became a mainstay of my vocabulary. I sat on numerous community committees, enthusiastically agreeing to every opportunity. I served on a handful of boards, filling my calendar with morning meetings, noon meetings, evening meetings, weekend events, conference calls, and an endless march of emails in between.
The stress of yes was building.
A few years later I made yet another career change — a common reality for today’s young professionals. I left behind public relations for a new chapter in fundraising. Familiar terrain was all around; yet again, I was starting from scratch. Saying yes was my only option as I learned the ropes. My daily work now revolved around convincing others to saying yes. The higher my yes quantity, the better my performance raising dollars.
Community work called once more, and my volunteer commitments grew. I had said yes for so many years that saying no wasn’t even an option. Yes felt good (at first). The thought of no felt stressful (at first).
Some weeks later, as my calendar looked chaotic, I was paging through a back issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. In one of her columns, the wise Ms. Winfrey touched upon our hectic, crazy, overscheduled lives.
“Remember what ‘yes’ feels like,” Winfrey wrote.
In that moment, such a simple, straightforward sentence made perfect sense. It would take some time, but I could easily replay my life’s cinematic reel of important events where the answer was unquestionably yes.
Remember what ‘yes’ feels like.
When I discovered my love of journalism. When I was offered my next job. When I purchased my first home. When my husband proposed. Every time I was asked, my gut, heart, and head all sang in unison.
What I had all too easily lost track of over the years was remembering the feeling of unquestionable certainty. Very few of the commitments I had said yes to felt as certain. Within a few moments of reflection, I pledged to myself to only say yes to opportunities that filled me with such feelings.
Remember what ‘yes’ feels like.
Part of my mission has also been sharing that little nugget of wisdom with anyone who complains of having too much to do. Shaving out the so-so commitments, the toxic relationships, the unproductive committees isn’t easy, I grant you that.
But I have found that saying no gets easier with practice.
Look at your calendar. What meetings do you have this month (or next month) that you already dread? What lunch dates, brunch dates, or happy hours are you already brainstorming last-minute excuses to cancel? What commitment are you still considering? (Hint: If you haven’t decided yet, the answer is very likely a firm no.)
Don’t allow yourself the cozy comfort of maybe or perhaps or, my personal favorite: “Let me give that some thought and get back to you.”
Avoid wasting your time and theirs. Say no now, and move on.
The beauty of this whole process is the calendar cleansing you’ll experience, but also the opportunity to seek out experiences that you have longed to pursue or explore. Saying no to the wrong requests means you have the time and energy to say yes to the right ones.
I would love to hear your experiences saying no (or yes). Tell me more at @wtownley or firstname.lastname@example.org.
P.S. If Oprah Winfrey isn’t your idea of a motivator, try the late poet Robert Frost on for size, who said so simply and eloquently, “Freedom lies in being bold.” Be bold. Say no. Find freedom!
Editor’s note: “The Stress of Yes” was originally written for the Greater Omaha Young Professionals.