The “less is more” mentality is becoming more common these days. It is popular to read about eliminating debt, decluttering your home, losing excess weight, and reducing stress. It also comes up as advice from one mom to another: “You just need to learn to say no!”
I asked others, “What do you say no to?” and generally heard two sides. Some answers were generic: “The dishes will wait,” “Let someone else take a turn,” “I have little kids,” and “It’s not my season.” I also heard some very specific responses: “I never sign up in the classroom,” “I don’t have time to cook,” “I don’t do church choir,” and “I take a full year off after having a baby.”
But neither of these directions brought me peace; they only increased my stress and made me wonder how any public school PTA continued to function! I have always been a go-to girl for many things because I am quick to volunteer and good at following through. But I regularly take on too much and later resent being asked in the first place. Or I commit to something I should have left to someone more skilled.
I started to feel like “just saying no” was a pretty good plan. I’d join the less-is-more club and eliminate my stress with a simple N-O. But it turned out that saying no was not so simple for me. I felt guilty for saying no when I knew I could contribute more, and I often liked saying yes. I just needed some guidelines to avoid over-committing. After a lot of trial and error—including yeses I regretted and nos I felt guilty about—I discovered three questions that I can use to help me decide if and how I’ll commit.
1) What can I do? Or in other words, where are my boundaries? After reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before I recognized that I have a tendency towards “obliging” and often commit to things simply because someone asks. But I am learning how setting up personal boundaries allows me to say no to what I can’t and yes to what I can. Today I may not be up for watching my friend’s kids with a non-committal end time, but I am happy to have her bring them at 10 a.m., and I’ll bring them home at noon.
2) Where is my highest contribution? In Essentialism Greg McKeown explains, “It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.” I love this concept and regularly consider where I can focus my energy in the things that matter most. For example, my highest contribution in supporting my children in the classroom is not in throwing a class party. I don’t enjoy it, and it’s hard to bring my three littlest children. However, I do really enjoy being in the class and being involved. Last year I discovered the Great Artist program in one daughter’s class, and this upcoming year I chose to be involved as a teacher-parent liaison. Each commitment requires minimal preparation and one hour in the classroom a month. I feel it is a wise investment of my energy because I can do these small things well.
3) How will this affect my family? Is this an opportunity that will take away from valuable family time, or is it a chance to enjoy each other more? My children asked to set up a summer lemonade stand. My instinct was to tell them no, but I recognized this could be a great learning opportunity, despite my personal preferences. We did some simple planning together and I let my girls take charge. We had fun together, and the money earned was donated to a cause we all agreed on.
These three questions have helped me navigate my personal expectations and any requests that are made of me. I have found it helpful to thank the person who is asking for thinking of me, and then I ask for some time to check my calendar.
When in doubt it helps to remember Christy Wright’s quote, “An honest no is always better than a dishonest yes.”
So what does saying no look like for me?
- I wanted to help a neighbor post-surgery, but couldn’t commit to extra hours in the kitchen. My daughters and I fixed a plate with some lunch we were having, walked it over, and had an enjoyable conversation.
- I gave up on my original plan to bring cute mini cupcakes to the park for my two-year-old’s birthday. She ended up giving each of her friends a sticker from a sheet I grabbed on the way out the door. Happiness for everyone.
- I regularly avoid spending extra time primping, but love feeling cute and dressed up. Thank you, dry shampoo, simple makeup (if any), and comfortable skirts.
- I’m working on ditching the guilt for not exercising as hard and often as I used to and have adopted a moderate workout routine that is more applicable to my time, energy, and post-baby body.
- I opted out of my original plan to make a birthday gift for my daughter’s Sunday school teacher and decided to wish her a sincere “Happy Birthday” instead. The enjoyable conversation that followed was better than a plate of cookies.
- I am getting better at saying no to unessential time at the laptop. I unsubscribed to non-essentials, installed email filters, uninstalled my Instagram app, and adjusted my Facebook settings to get updates from the groups I’m in without having to scroll through an endless feed.
I love Brene Brown’s words from Rising Strong: “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”
It’s exciting and empowering to discover that saying no doesn’t have to leave me feeling guilty, and saying yes doesn’t need to deplete me. I am finding creative ways to do what I can, and I am getting better at recognizing where my best energy will do the most good, especially within my family.
QUESTION: What have you recently said yes or no to, and why?
CHALLENGE: Record the three questions listed above and keep them near your planner for one week. Has considering them changed how you’ve chosen to make commitments both to yourself and to others?
Edited by Lisa Hoelzer and Katie Carter.
Post images provided by the author. Featured image from Shutterstock; graphics by Julie Finlayson.