We are culturally driven to feel grateful for and say yes to every opportunity. But taking on too much can create its own set of problems. Learning to say "no" more often is a skill that will leave us energized and prepared to say a resounding yes, when the right opportunity comes along.
TV queen Shonda Rhimes, creator of superhit TV shows such as Grey's Anatomy and Scandal and Executive producer of How to get away with murder, amongst other equally popular shows, wrote a hugely successful inspirational memoir in 2015. She titled the book "Year of Yes." The book resulted from a conversation Rhimes had with her sister one Thanksgiving when Rhimes was told that despite being flooded with opportunities, she (Rhimes) never said yes to anything.
Rhimes, an introvert (who'd have guessed), took her sister's words to heart and decided to embark on her year of yes project. She resolved to say yes to every opportunity that came her way, especially those that scared her the most. Rhimes' decision was motivated by her determination to get—and stay— out of her comfort zone.
Rhimes' Year of Yes story is the epitome of the perfect self-help story: commendable, fascinating, and uplifting. The kind of story makes you sit up straighter and pay more attention to what's on your to-do list.
Now, let's go back to the title of this post. In contrast to Rhimes' Year or Yes, I ask you to say "no" more often.
Why the 180-degree turn?
If you've ever read or even cursorily glanced at anything I've written, you'll notice a common theme: I typically tout can-do optimism most of the time. I'm all about making the most of the brief time we walk on earth. If I were to pass today, you couldn't go wrong with this inscription on my tombstone "Her days were jam-packed, and her to-do lists were overflowing."
But now, when there are more pies than ever to dip my fingers into, I'm inspired to slow down. Not because I'm less enthused, but because I'm finally beginning to wisen up to the detrimental effects and the futility of trying to do it all. I'm now on a mission to say "NO" more often.
Psychologist and author David Cohen, who has published over thirty-five books and is a member of the Royal Society of Medicine, once quipped that he found a task on a to-do list from 35-years-ago that he still hadn't gotten to.
Like me, you probably have a bucket list that is a mile long, not counting the other pail, container, and vessel lists that are equally long or even lengthier. I have over a thousand books I'd like to read, music I want to learn, relationships I'd like to nurture, people I want to help, articles I'd like to write, places I'd like to go, meals I want to create, etc.
You get the point.
Like taxes and death, there will be unread books, unseen places, and untasted meals in my life and yours. The reality is that a significant portion of our wish lists will never see the light of the day. It's not pessimism. Life is Just. Too. Short. And therein lies the problem of saying yes to everything.
The trouble with yessing away
It's okay to dream big dreams. Trouble starts brewing when we take ourselves half-seriously and start saying yes to everything, hoping to accomplish every single item on our wish lists.
Like a shapeshifting anime character (don't ask me how I know), the word scatterbrained reveals its true force when the brain is pulled in many different directions. There is a reason why we transform from being delightfully forgetful to becoming outright unreliable when inundated with many unfinished tasks. It's called the Zeignarik effect.
The Zeignarik effect
Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeignarik noticed at a Vienna restaurant that waiters remembered the orders that were not delivered to diners better than those that were already complete. She observed that while the task was unfinished, i.e., restaurant patrons were still waiting for the meals, the waiters recollected details of pending orders. But once customers got their meals, the waiters' brains marked the task as complete and didn't care to remember whether you had ordered the chef's special or the house salad.
This selective memory retention is referred to as the Zeignarik effect. It's a fascinating feature of evolution that allows us to use our working memories to store need-to-know facts while pruning away any information clutter.
The Zeigarnik effect is obvious to anyone who has crammed for a test at the last minute or ended a TV show season on a cliffhanger. Our memories retain all the information it needs until our test is complete or until we understand where our TV characters are headed in the new season. But beyond that, poof! It explains why we binge-watch shows, love thrillers, or can't bear to sleep until we finish reading our suspense-filled novel, even when we have to be up early the next day.
The Zeignarik effect has some very practical applications, as is probably evident. The more we leave tasks and projects undone, the more loose strings our working memories have to keep tabs on. As a result, when we say yes to everything, and since most of us aren't memory champions, our limited working memory cells start to misfire. Result? Chaos.
From Fomo to Snomo
To be honest, I didn't know about the Zeignarik effect until a while ago. I was (at least I thought I was) very creatively juggling many balls in the air. And juggling well, in my not-so-humble-opinion of myself.
Then, the wake-up call came.
I made a seemingly harmless error on a quarterly tax form—I missed the decimal point when I printed a number. Not surprisingly, I was soon embroiled in an audit request from the Tax department. Naturally, they were keen to find out how my assets suddenly grew exponentially from the thousands to the millions in the space of a quarter.
Suffice to say, weeks of paperwork, stress, and anxiety ensued. Thankfully, it ended well; the authorities were convinced it was a genuine error of omission on my part.
To err is
human more likely
However, this incident prompted me to step back and assess how I made the error in the first place, especially since I'm always lecturing others on how the devil is in the details. Though it's a mistake anyone could have made if I were being honest, I knew the root of the problem: I was trying to do too much.
I had a long list of things to do, so I felt the need to rush through my tasks. My brain, meanwhile, was constantly interrupted by all my unfinished tasks (and there were many), causing my memory cells to fight for resources.
Like a pub brawl, there was no guessing who or what the casualties would be in my fragmented brain. Missed decimals on tax forms, forgotten school pick-ups, belated birthday wishes, misplaced keys, and receipts—life was turning into one long misadventure.
In a way, I was losing my mind, but not for conventional reasons. Instead, it was because I was taxing my already overworked and limited brainpower by chasing after every shiny object I came across.
That's when I decided to switch gears. I went from acting out of FOMO to saying "no" more often (SNOMO). Since then, I've learned a thing or two on how to say "no."
How to say "no" more often
Here are some examples of how to let it go and say "no" more often.
1. Stop being a people-pleaser
Have you ever been asked to do something and thought, "Fat chance. No way," but somehow surprised yourself when the garbled words that come out of your mouth are "Yes, I'll do it?"
Congratulations! You just passed the people-pleaser test with flying colors.
Everyone likes to be liked. More often than not, our fear of rejection or sounding rude makes us say yes when we really mean to say no. But saying yes and then having a mild panic attack isn't helpful.
Try to say "no" more often. For instance, if you are asked to volunteer at the fundraiser because everyone else is busy, just say sorry. It's okay. Everyone will get over it. Even you.
2. Living up to expectations—yours or theirs?
It's one thing to fulfill your own potential. But trying to live up to the expectations of your neighbors, aunt, co-workers, Starbucks barista, Instagram followers, and your dog, in addition to your own, can do a number on your mental health.
Yes, we all have to be civic-minded, collegial, and functioning members of society. But at some point, you need to do you. If that means you have to say no to an urgent work assignment from your boss at 5 p.m. on a Friday or decline a happy hour invite with your friends because you plan to catch up on sleep, it's okay. Sure, say it politely, but say it firmly.
3. Whittle your list down. Way down.
Yes, the curious are rewarded. Curiosity is the engine of achievement and all that. It's wonderful to want to learn about astronomy, how to milk a cow, and create the perfect French macarons. Just not a good idea to learn it all while also working on your graduate thesis.
Prioritize what you'd like to do now. Ignore the rest until you have the bandwidth to start planning.
Another way to whittle your list down is by learning the art of delegation. It's not easy directing work to someone else, especially if you are, like me, a perennial people-pleaser. But, if someone else can do a task as well as you do, and you don't have the time or resources to do it, then you have a legitimate reason to say pass it on.
4. Have a plan for tasks you're not actively working on
While the Zeignarik effect is about how unfinished tasks constantly interrupt our focus and attention, there's one notable exception to the rule: Tasks on your radar that you are not actively working on but for which have a pre-formulated plan in place, don't interfere with your focus.
For instance, if you have clearly designated carpool duties on who picks up kids from school each day, your brain will let you focus on your work. However, if you are unsure about who's turn it is to carpool, then until that's settled, your brain will keep reminding you at random intervals about the unfinished business. You may be in the middle of presenting to the CEO, but your brain doesn't care and will keep whispering the words "carpool" into your ears. It can be annoying as heck. (Again, don't ask me how I know.)
5. Make peace
Make peace with yourself and the situation. Our priorities, likes, and dislikes can change over time. You could spend years on an expensive and lengthy process of studying medicine and eventually choose not to become a doctor because you finally decided to listen to your heart instead of following what others thought was good for you.
Life is too short for us to ruminate or conduct endless what-if analyses. The sooner we learn to say "no" more often, the better chance we stand of actually saying yes to the right things.
The entire article is about avoiding overwhelm by limiting what we pour our time and energy into. It's not, however, a copout to do nothing. There, I said it, in case you were planning on quoting me to excuse lethargy.
Shonda Rhimes is 100% right. We grow by getting out of our comfort zones and saying yes to opportunities we fear. But there has to be at least one complementary no for every yes. Because a day will only ever have 24 hours, and you and I will never gain immortality. At least not in our physical form, and certainly not while we are still on Planet Earth.
The stock market is a no-called-strike game. You don't have to swing at everything – you can wait for your pitch. The problem when you're a money manager is that your fans keep yelling, 'swing, you bum!' - Warren Buffett
We want to be everywhere doing everything because it's been drilled into our heads that opportunity comes knocking once. Like Buffett says, sometimes it's best to say "no" more often. That way, when the right opportunity presents itself, and it will, we have the energy and time to say a resounding yes.
It's okay to say "no" unapologetically. You are not selfish when you let others know your dance card is full. You are simply saving your sanity.