The majority of people I’ve spoken to recently are at some extreme level of busy. Maybe so busy that the word “busy” doesn't cut it anymore.
What this busyness and “yes culture” says to me is that a lot of us are finding it difficult to say “no.” We’ve become accustomed to playing catch up and wrestling with a million and one things to do. It’s quickly becoming normal to be overwhelmed with stuff to do—but when you stop and think about it, that shouldn’t be normal.
Why do we find using this tiny two letter word such a difficult skill to perfect?
“Saying no stirs up intensely negative emotions—embarrassment and guilt,” says Vanessa Bohns, professor of organisational behaviour at Cornell University.
In her recent study, a group of people were each loaned a book from the library and then instructed to deface it. Half the subjects recorded that it felt wrong to do so, but they did it anyway. It was later discovered that those who chose to deface the book found it difficult to reject the person who had asked.
History shows that humans found considerable benefits being in groups, notably hunting and staying alive. Being in a group increased chances of survival by providing the ability to share resources, so we adopted a sense that being agreeable to the group dynamic was good for us. Acceptance is seen as a survival mechanism, and therefore saying no makes us think we’ll be perceived negatively and excluded.
The people-pleaser within us likes to create and sustain connections with others, and anything that threatens to break that bond can cause us to worry. Saying no to joining a meeting, declining to help someone when they have asked for it, or turning down an invitation all create a sense of panic, so instead we take the easy way out, the path of least resistance, and before we know it, we’ve become buried under a huge pile of yes.
There's another thing to consider here: our own desire to be seen as always doing stuff. Busyness is addictive, and there is a large part of us that wants to be seen as in demand or needed, which raises our perceived level of importance. We’re also on the lookout for more so that we can stay up to date with everything that is happening to everyone, everywhere. God forbid we have spaces in our calendar!
The fear of missing out has such a strong pull that it can make us agree to all sorts of things we don’t want to do. There is a lot of social pressure connected with FOMO—a perceived sense of duty and obligation to do things like answer emails at ridiculous times. The antidote to this? Embracing the Joy Of Missing Out.
Being okay with not knowing everything, being everywhere, or seeing everyone grants you the ability to be more present and understanding of your own capacity. JOMO helps us to phase out “shoulds” and become more intentional with our time. It allows us to focus on the most important things and gives us back energy we would otherwise spend being anxious or competitive.
Some bosses don’t really know the intricacies of the tasks that are going on in a team. It’s not their job to know all the ins and outs, but it is their job to move obstacles out of the way so you can be successful. It’s up to you, however, to tell them when you’ve hit your limit.
If you get another request from your boss to do something and you are already at capacity, ask them what the current priority is. If you take on this new thing, maybe one of the older things you’re working on is not as important anymore.
Have people become reliant on you without even knowing it? Are they calling you before trying to figure things out for themselves? Are you rescuing others because you feel you need to?
Getting hooked on giving advice and always being the one to come to others’ rescue can be an occupational hazard. These helping behaviours can trigger dopamine, serotonin, and oxycontin, a neurochemical cocktail that makes us feel good. While seeing people flourish and feeling satisfied that we have provided advice is not a bad goal, it’s only momentarily gratifying.
The effects of always helping and saying yes to everything can cause severe long-term damage to others. One person’s inability to say “no” can bring a whole team or organisation crashing down.
We tend to believe others will judge us more harshly than they actually do. The majority of people are so caught up in their own world, with their own mounting list of things to do, that they will probably quickly forget about your answer and move on to their own tasks. And if a relationship is strong, the person receiving the “no” will understand and give you the space you need.
My challenge for you now is to have courage, to be brave, and to negotiate just one thing with a “no” this week. Getting better at saying “no” will be good not just for you, but for your relationships and for business.