The Magic of Saying ‘No’

In 2015, Lady Gaga sat with a group of teens at the Yale Centre for Emotional Intelligence discussing her battle with anxiety and depression. She reflected on how shallow endeavors resulted in her life not looking the way she had wanted it to. Her sharing culminated in what turned things around – ‘Starting to say no’. 🙅‍♀️

As a society, anxiety and instant gratification are both on the rise, and our ability to say ‘no’ to requests from the world around us is under attack.

We lose nearly 40 hours a week to social media, television, and a host of other unproductive or socially compulsive habits. We feel we will be ostracized if we don’t participate in social media norms or go for drinks. FOMO is still here and complicit in our desire to stay likable and popular.

However, it doesn’t need to be.

Saying ‘No’ can change your life.

‘No’ Gives You Back Control

While it may be far from your natural response, saying ‘no’ is a game-changer. How often do you unwittingly agree to things before remembering you already had plans? How many times do you say yes when you really didn’t want to?

Unfortunately, the compounding effects of our nature, wanting to please and be liked by others, lead us to lose our sense of agency – our sense of control over our own lives.

We seem to regard ‘no’ as selfish but it’s often the most unselfish thing you can say. Saying no doesn’t make you unkind nor is it an insult to whatever opportunity you decline. It is your life to do with it as you please and that bears remembering.

Saying ‘no’ builds confidence, self-respect, optimism and focus. By saying no, you can build healthy boundaries in a work and personal environment ensuring your time is valued and not taken for granted. It places a limit on your availability which in turn makes it more valuable like any resource. If it were freely available, it doesn’t command any consideration to ask for your time.

Although it can feel uncomfortable, saying ‘no’ means you are not at the behest of your relationship with others, social media, the snooze button, snacks and your emotions. It means you make the choice, not the other way around.  

‘No’ Gives You More Time for What You Love

By saying no, you can say yes to what is most important to you.

I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no‘ to 1,000 things. You have to pick carefully. – Steve Jobs on the power of saying no.

It is easy to overlook the opportunity cost of saying yes. Most often by signing yourself up to everything you are asked, you automatically rule out other activities, or worse, you bail. 👻

Your ‘Yes’ should mean something when faced with limited resources particularly time, energy, and money. It should be reserved for actions and opportunities that hold value for you personally and not only because someone else needs it or thinks it would be good for you.

The utterance of the word ‘no’ subconsciously ranks your priorities. It allows you to be selective and affords you the right to place time into areas of your life that bring happiness, productivity and connection. It means you are not spread too thin. People and activities that are important to you receive the attention that reflects their significance.

Removing Social Pressures

1 in 3 people check their phones in the middle of the night. This jumps to over 50% last thing before sleep and first thing in the morning with most checking social media messages and emails. The blue-lights of your phone is actually detrimental to sleep but the addiction to social media is the more concerning piece.

Our innate thirst for social approval drives the approximate 109 minute average (144 mins for US) we spend on our phones each day. The point to which social media is consuming people is alarming.

For the most part, we are people-pleasers. We like to make others happy by going out of our way and putting the objectives of others ahead of our own. However, there is no specific amount of kindness that is quantifiably unhealthy so we often give away more time than we intend.

Saying ‘no’ doesn’t just extend to declining an event. It can take the form of switching off from social media or screens as a whole. Canadians spend over 11 hours a day looking at screens which can’t seem like a healthy amount to anyone.

By putting the phone down or declining invitations, you reduce the hold social anxiety may have. It moderates the addiction to vanity metrics, the appetite for instant approval, and reshapes your view of social interaction.

How to Say ‘No’?

“A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better and greater than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please or, what is worse, to avoid trouble.” – Gandhi

From Mahatma Gandhi to Steve Jobs to Lady Gaga, the learning of how to say ‘No’ made all the difference. It carries power for self-respect and development.

But, how does one do it in the face of the social obligations and expectations to subscribe to norms nowadays?

It is not quite as simple as old school commercials used to teach teens how to refuse drugs.

It is a horses for courses solution that starts by being harsh to yourself. Not in a masochistic sense but when posed with choices you know should be a ‘No’, take the hard decision.

Step 1 – Pause

Whether an action or response is expected immediately, take a brief moment. Consider your options and commitments before you sign yourself up to something you can’t actually agree to. If it is as trivial as looking at your phone or on the march to the snack drawer, just take an extra second.

Interpersonally, the age old responses here are to “check my schedule”, “let me get back to you” or “I have something on at the time”. You just need to buy a little time.

Step 2 – Assess Your Commitments

You are not lying to someone by saying you need to check your schedule. You may feel obligated to offer an immediate response but that is just a figment of social pressure. If it is a friend, family or colleague, they have the patience and respect to wait.

Step 2 can be a literal calendar check or can go a touch deeper. If you find yourself regularly committed to functions you don’t want to attend or with habits you don’t appreciate; take it a step further.

List the current commitments you have in your personal, social and professional life. Take a pen and circle those that are most important to you. Are there ones you would sacrifice for more of another?

Step 3 – Set Goals

Goals take us a step further. By setting forth goals for your career and personal life, you are making commitments to your future. Each new opportunity can be evaluated against what it can do in relation to where you want to be.

If it derails your plan, it’s a ‘No’.

Step 4 – Say the Magic Word

Here are a few ways of politely refusing invitations:

  • Professionally
    • “My schedule is pretty backed up at the moment so I have to say no”
    • “I appreciate you considering me but I will have to pass for now /  it isn’t a good time/fit for me at the moment”
    • “I don’t have any time available for new projects right now so I will have to decline. My apologies”
    • “I like your idea. Do you think we could come back to it when we aren’t so busy?”
    • “I’m afraid I can’t take another client on and still remain attentive to my current client list”
    • “I really appreciate the proposal but this isn’t the direction I am aiming to go in.”
    • “I would need X amount of time to do a good job on that with my current commitments, does that work?
  • Personally
    • “I would love to hang out but I made other plans / deal me out this time / I am taking time away this weekend / I’m just going to lay low this time”
    • “To be honest, I’m not the most comfortable with lending people my X, is there anything else I can do?”
    • “I hope it doesn’t frustrate you but it’s not really something I’m into / it’s not really my scene”
    • “I can’t come right now but can I talk you through it?”
    • “I won’t be able to make that time, would it work for you to reschedule?”

Saying ‘No’ isn’t soul crushing or rude or any of the other negative connotations. It is your right to be the arbiter of your own time. Just remember that your body language plays a big part and honesty is always best.


Time and energy are precious resources and shouldn’t be doled out without intention.

What we choose not to do, is just as important as the things we do.

Despite the peculiar trajectory society has coerced us to; we don’t need to subscribe to the anxieties of refusing a situation. You and those important to you should value and respect your right to say ‘No’. After all, saying ‘No’ opens doors to opportunities you might never have previously had.

Just say No, your future self will thank you. 🙅‍♂️

Photo by Paweł Czerwiński