Optimism is normal, but some fortunate people are more optimistic than the rest of us. If you are genetically endowed with an optimism bias, you hardly need to be told that you are a lucky person—you already feel fortunate. Daniel Kahneman.
It’s been a stressful week. In hindsight, I realize I’ve brought some of this stress on myself.
At an event this past weekend, I ran into an accomplished person I’ve always admired. She stopped to talk to me, which, if I’m being honest, tickled me. We exchanged pleasantries, and talked about this and that, but soon I found myself volunteering my time to a cause I’m rather iffy about.
A couple of days later, I was in an online conversation with an acquaintance and couldn’t stop myself from saying yes to a commitment that I’m at best a maybe on. Yet again.
Why do we say “yes”, when we mean “no”?
For someone who often writes about productivity and time management, it is surprising how often I find myself doing things I’d rather not do just because I tend to say “Yes” when I really want to say “No” or “Maybe.”
I psychoanalyzed this behavior, because, why not? And came up with two key reasons for my predicament. I’m sure this applies to others in similar situations too.
People-pleasing and the desire for approval
Who doesn’t want to be liked?! We’re socially engineered to be part of tribes. And usually, membership in a tribe means you need to be likeable enough for the tribe to take you in. Many times, we say “yes” to everything the tribe asks us to do, because that’s an easy way to garner likeability.
Optimism bias, also referred to as unrealistic optimism, is a cognitive bias that makes us underestimate the likelihood of negative events happening to us.
Even if you’re the kind who approaches the world with a glass half-empty point of view, most of us are prone to optimism bias, especially when it comes to our own abilities. We tend to be quite optimistic about our own resourcefulness, and how long it would take for us to complete tasks. We overestimate our own abilities or tend to be overly positive about how external events will affect us.
This kind of self-optimism, in turn, means we tend to ambitiously over-promise and often end up under-delivering on our commitments. Think about this: how often have you said, “I’ll be back in a second” and actually done just that?
Knowing isn’t doing
Now, none of this is a revelation. I haven’t suddenly become self-aware and noticed my people pleasing tendencies, or recognized my optimism bias. As the IT people refer to it, it’s a known bug—a subject that I have already written about in detail why we need to say “no” more often.
But, as John Maxwell said about the knowledge-action gap, “The greatest gap in the world is the gap between knowing and doing.”
But that’s about to change, because here are five concrete ways I’ve found to stop over-committing and bridge the gap between the why we over-commit and how to learn to say “no”.
How to stop over-committing
Ask for time
When faced with a request or situation that triggers our people-pleasing tendencies, the first step is to mindfully delay our response to give ourselves time.
This delay allows us to consider our own needs and whether the commitment is genuinely aligned with our goals.
Assertiveness is tough, because it stands in contrast to our people-pleasing tendencies. But learning to communicate our boundaries and opinions clearly and confidently and being direct about our thoughts and feelings can prevent a lot of remorse later on.
Don’t say maybe if you want to say no. Paulo Coelho
Saying “no” or setting boundaries might feel uncomfortable initially, but we need to remind ourselves that discomfort is a part of growth. And recognizing that feeling uncomfortable is a sign of progress.
Counter optimism bias
Instead of focusing solely on positive outcomes and having optimism bias cloud our decision-making, actively consider the possibility of negative scenarios, too. Ask leading questions such as “How long will the project take if things don’t go according to plan?”
Taking negative scenarios into consideration can help us make more informed decisions and prepare for potential challenges.
Keep a journal
Actively keeping a daily journal that includes our thought process and rationale when we make important decisions can be life-changing. Over time, we get to review our thinking and identify patterns of optimism bias.
At the end of the day, the best predictor of our behavioral patterns are our own past behaviors.
In 2015 Shonda Rhimes published a memoir titled the “Year of Yes” where she chronicled how, after spending her life cocooned in comfort, she (at her sister’s insistence) decided to say yes to every challenge that took her out of her comfort zone. The result, she writes in her book, was hugely transformative. She played with her kids whenever they asked her to and lost over a hundred pounds.
But the theme that resonated with many was the part in the book on how to say “Yes to No.” Rhimes recounts how saying “that doesn’t work for me,” and not fretting about the outcome, was liberating.
Saying Yes to No is a skill. Because, in reality, by saying no to one thing, we are actually saying yes to something else—often our own sanity.
When you say ‘yes’ to others, make sure you’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself. Paulo Coelho.