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Blog // Productivity
March 4, 2023

Let Your Yes Be A Yes

When ancient wisdom and contemporary writers say the same thing, especially about something as basic as how you say yes and no, then it’s time to pay attention.

It’s been a long, long time since I stopped quoting Bible passages. But one popped into my head last week during a conversation about setting priorities.

“Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”
– Matthew 5:37

I’m not sure our occasional inability to clearly say “yes” or “no” comes from the Devil as much as it comes from the darker recesses of our psyche, from our need for validation, our self-doubt, or other limiting self-beliefs. But it’s clear that this is an issue many people have struggled with throughout history, including those alive today. We say “yes” to too many things. We don’t always find it easy to say “no.”

The consequence is that we find ourselves juggling too many commitments, not having the time for the people or activities we really want to enjoy, or otherwise feeling overwhelmed.

In this article I want to explore what it means to make each “yes” really a “yes,” why your default answer to most requests should be “no,” and how having clean edges around the way you say “yes” or “no” can protect and enhance your mindset and well-being.

Let “Yes” Be Enough

When you say “yes,” be aware of how enthusiastic saying the word makes you feel. Too often we say “yes” because we feel obligated, because we don’t want to disappoint, because we just want to feel needed, or to avoid conflict.

This means it’s not necessarily a wholehearted “yes,” and so it opens us up to agreeing to things we don’t really want to do.

I like the way Derek Sivers puts it: don’t just say “yes,” make sure it’s “Either HELL YEAH! or no.” Unless you’re full to the brim with joy and excitement at the prospect of doing something, don’t agree to it. Don’t commit. Don’t say “yes.”

“When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” — then say “no.””
– Derek Sivers

Another way to get to a solid “yes” is to try and schedule the ask before committing to it. How long will it take? Do you need to add travel or preparation time? Do you really have room in your calendar for all that? Are there things you’d be happy to cancel or reschedule before you can say “yes”?

Resisting the urge to reply in the moment can also help. Taking a night to sleep on your “Hell yeah” response is worthwhile. As is making the time to look at your schedule properly. It’s worth practising your “I’ll get back to you” reply, at least at first, as you start changing how you say “yes.”

But perhaps the most powerful way to manage this is to simply change your default response.

Make “No” Your Default

Several years ago, I started noticing how the most creative and productive people I knew seemed to say “no” to almost every request for their time. Taking a peek at their email inbox, social media notifications, or LinkedIn account showed me the vast number of requests they got every day every week.

Chase Jarvis puts it well when he says saying “no” being like a skill that you need to practise. It’s not easy saying “no.” Most of us have to learn how to do it and how to be comfortable with doing so.

A “no” can be friendly, encouraging, or polite. It can suggest someone better suited to the task. Or it can educate and show a better way to make a request.

Most importantly, a good “no” clarifies. It reminds you and everyone around you what your priorities and values are. It illuminates the road, not just to better opportunities, but to better ways to request your time and attention.

The Benefits Of Saying A Clear “Yes” Or “No”

We all too easily fall for the idea that saying “no” will close us off from future opportunities. But it doesn’t really work like that. In fact, saying “yes” too often can overwhelm us with so many commitments that we might not have the time or space when a really good opportunity comes along.

A good “no,” as much as an enthusiastic and less frequent “yes,” sets boundaries.

It’s better for your health, well-being, and the quality of your relationships if you commit to the things you can do well and avoid the ones you can’t. This lets you focus on where you can be of most use to those around you.

It also helps you to avoid the inevitable regret, guilt, and even shame that comes from giving your time and effort to things you don’t value.

What About “Maybe?”

Is there a place to occasionally reply with a “maybe”? Well, maybe. It depends on the circumstances.

“Maybe” is for ideas, not requests. If someone asks you if you can do something, then you should always say “yes” or “no.” But if the request is more theoretical or speculative, then “maybe” might be appropriate.

But avoid the temptation to cave into saying “maybe” when you really want to say “no.” Maybes create ambiguity; they invite people to keep asking you to do things you eventually say “no” to or regret saying “yes” to.

It’s better to say “no” often and to say “yes” occasionally and with lots of gusto, before getting on with the business of living and creating.

“We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out.”
– Derek Sivers

If you enjoyed this topic then here are a few more essays on decision making,

Why You Should WOOP
A Broken Guitar And Decision-Fatigue
How To Think About New Technology
Decision-Free Mondays
Oblique Strategies

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