My Month of “No”: How Saying It More Often Changed My Life

YJ senior editor Meghan Rabbitt shares how learning to say this one little word more often empowered her to makeover her entire life.

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 BY MEGHAN RABBITT

I’ve been a “yes” girl for as long as I can remember. I was that kid who took on extra credit assignments in high school and college even though I already had an A average. In my first job as an editorial assistant at a big national magazine, I didn’t turn down one assignment, even though it meant I had to take sick days to crank out copy on time. Even now, with a busy work schedule and a full life, I find myself continuously in “yes” mode, agreeing to work projects and social plans almost mindlessly.

There are upsides to this kind of always-game attitude—gratitude from friends and loved ones, a reputation as the get-’er-done kind of coworker. Yet recently, I was starting to feel some of the downsides of my “yes” ways. My full calendar was leaving me with fewer windows to wind down, and I was missing my favorite yoga classes on the regs. My work schedule was so busy with meetings and deadlines that I was ignoring my passion projects. And forget about my New Year’s resolution to meditate for 20 minutes every morning. That felt like a pipe dream.

Then I met Gopi Kallayil, Chief Evangelist, Brand Marketing at Google. I mentioned this go-mode I’d been in for as long as I could remember, assuming he’d be able to commiserate. After all, he’d just written a book and travels all over the world for work. Surely he could relate.

“I learned the importance of saying ‘no’ a long time ago,” he told me. “It’s the most important skill you can practice if you want to say ‘yes’ to the things that matter to you the most.” I decided then and there to be more conscious about how I filled my iCal for one solid month. I also called Sandja Brügman, founder of  The Passion Institute—an online educational program for executives and entrepreneurs—for her help during my month-long quest to embrace the word “no.” Here are the five biggest lessons I’ve learned in the last 30 days.

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Lesson #1: Saying “no” will sharpen your focus.

When I’m in “yes” mode, I’m a multitasking maniac. I get a work “high” at the end of the day if I’ve checked multiple items off my to-do list. Yet new research shows this isn’t exactly making me the rock star I think it is. In fact, not only does science show that multitasking makes you less productive than if you were doing a single thing at a time, but people who are regularly bombarded with several tasks also can’t pay attention, recall info, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one thing at a time. What’s more, multitaskers who feel it boosts their performance (that’d be me!) are actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. When I started getting choosier about what I said “yes” to, I found I naturally had less to juggle—giving my full attention to the fewer things I was working on did help me produce better work, faster.

Brügman’s secret-sauce tip that helped me actually follow through with my new, “no” ways and stop multitasking so much: “Know what it is that you want to create, which will bring focus to that thing and make it easier to say ‘no,’” she says. For me, making time to meditate and take my favorite yoga classes was a definite “yes,” which did make it easier to ditch what was going to get in the way of that.

Lesson #2: Saying “no” makes space for the tough stuff to come up.

Jam-packing your schedule with work and social commitments is a sneaky, socially acceptable way of avoiding the uncomfy emotions that tend to bubble to the surface when you get quiet. That issue you’re having with a co-worker? You don’t have to think about how you’re going to make it better when you’re slammin’ busy. The sadness you feel about a friendship that doesn’t feel as close as it once did? It’s less likely you’ll actually sit with that grief when you’re scheduled from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Yet here’s the thing about allowing that tough stuff to come up: When it does, you can actually process it, and then let it go. “And when that happens, imagine how free you’ll be to focus on what really matters to you,” Brügman says.

I’m about a year out of a really tough breakup, and it’s only now that I can see my busy-bee ways were preventing me from really looking at my grief. I can’t say that it’s been a lot of fun letting the tears or anger surface, but I’m sure that actually feeling these emotions is helping me in the long run.

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Lesson #3: Saying “no” frees up more time to rejuve.

The obvious benefit of getting choosier about how you spend your time is that there’s a good chance you’ll find some holes in your calendar that weren’t there before. At first, I was tempted to fill those openings with work, whether it was catching up on emails or getting a jumpstart on a big project. Yet within a week or so, I started to fill this free time with stuff that feeds my soul. The benefit? This time I spend doing what I love not only makes me happy in the moment, but it also helps me feel fresher and sharper—and more creative—when I get back to my desk. In fact, research shows that creativity flows more freely when you’re not feeling under the gun.

“It can be really tough—especially at first—to do things that don’t have anything to do with being productive or fixing something,” says Brügman. “When you start to say ‘no,’ you’ll be forced to meet yourself in a space when you might feel bored, or lonely, or sad, and that can be really scary.” It’s true, these new chunks of quiet time in my life don’t always feel warm and fuzzy (see Lesson #2). But more and more, I’m filling some of this free time with juicy self-care practices, like hikes with friends, long baths, and simply sitting on my couch with a cup of tea—and the feel-good factor these activities inspire is motivating me to stay on the “no” train.

Lesson #4: Saying “no” makes you a better friend, partner, and co-worker.

It can be tempting to try to be the most loveable partner, friend, leader, and co-worker—and saying “yes” to everything can feel like an easy way to make everyone happy. Yet what I’ve learned is that conveying a clear, kind “no” is one of the best ways to draw a boundary—one that doesn’t make people like me less, but rather respect me more. Brügman says I’ve had the “aha!” moment that everyone who learns how to say “no” experiences at some point: “Learning to say ‘no’ is a key foundational skill to successful relationships,” she says. “Once you start drawing clear boundaries, you create clarity, safety, security, and order—all of the traits you’d want in both a leader and a loved one.”

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Lesson #5: Saying “no” makes you feel good.

One of the biggest surprises of my month-long experiment is how great I feel when I say “no” to something or someone. At the beginning of the month, I was downright nervous to say no—convinced I’d have a ton of regrets afterwards, fearing I’d hurt feelings or simply feel like I was missing out. Instead, I find myself feeling more centered than ever. “What you’re likely experiencing is a big boost in self-esteem,” Brügman says. “You’re taking good care of yourself by making decisions while standing in your full integrity.” And I’ve already started getting some positive feedback. One of my closest friends mentioned that she’d noticed I wasn’t agreeing to plans and then bailing at the last-minute, with the excuse that I’d overbooked myself. “Plus, when we do hang out, you seem to be more present,” she told me. I was on a high for days after she shared this, and had the proof I needed that this little just-say-no experiment was one I should continue.