How to Say No (and When to Say Yes)

I’ve always been fascinated with words, and how to use them. I’ve studied several languages, but most of all I love exploring my own native language, English. I love picking it apart, learning new words, and taking a deeper look at familiar words to further understand them. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about two words lately: Yes and No. And specifically-specifically, I’ve been exploring when and how to say No, as well as Yes.

These are two simple, yet deceptively special words. Found in every language I am aware of, they are two of the most essential atoms of all human communication.

These two words come up often in conversations about personal growth, improving your situation, and living a life you love. For instance, I often hear advice that goes something like this:

“To improve your life, you need to start saying No way more often.”

But here’s where things get fun, because I also hear advice that goes something like this:

“To improve your life, you need to start saying Yes way more often.”

But here’s where things get extra fun. I have tried both of these strategies, both how to say No more, and how to give Yes a chance too. And I have found BOTH to make a measurably positive impact on my life. So what the hell is going on here?

The Battle of Yes vs. No

To figure out these two seemingly opposing pieces of advice and how to reconcile them, we need to take a step back. We need to look at where each idea comes from to figure out the disconnect. 

Fortunately, this part is pretty easy, because the two statements come from two clear lines of thinking. Each takes a different focus, but their goals are not as separate as you might think.

Knowing when and how to say No is a life-altering skill that can bring more joy into your life and help you get where you’re going. The same is true for knowing when to say Yes. Let’s see how that can be.

How to Say No

The case for No is a rather simple one. In fact, it’s just that – it’s the case for simplicity itself. It’s popular among well-known minimalists, productivity experts, and others who believe that on the whole, our lives are way too full of noise, clutter of all sorts that’s weighing us down.

By learning when to say No, and using that power more often, you can take on this clutter and reclaim more of your life for you. Say No to pointless requests at work (or unimportant items on your own to-do list), and free up your time for the work that will have the biggest impact. Stop the accumulation of items that serve no purpose and bring no joy by saying No to them in the first place. Say No to expenses that offer you little value and hamper your ability to build wealth. 

Our time, money, and energy are not infinite. And if we don’t learn the value of No, then they will dwindle away, bit by bit, on whatever comes along. And most of what comes along is not worthy of our time, money, or energy. Know when to say No to these things, and you’ll start freeing up your most valuable resources to put to their most valuable ends: things that make you happier, healthier, and help you build the life you want to live.

Some of you who have spent time around here before may recognize this as the idea of working Smarter, one of the two basic building blocks of this blog’s philosophy. And might I say, gold star for you. Because that’s exactly what it is.

How to Say Yes

So if saying No is sitting on the ‘less is more,’ working Smarter, subtraction side of things, then you may have a good guess where we’re going with this one. Saying Yes is on the ‘more is more,’ working Harder, addition side of the same coin. It’s about adding more good into your life. It’s about embracing new opportunities, experience, and potential. 

Opportunities are already there; they’re practically everywhere. It’s up to you and me to know when to say Yes, to notice them and give them a chance. Try saying Yes when you find opportunities to meet new people, visit new places, try new foods and experiences, and do new work that will teach you new skills. Some of this will be uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the point.

This is the spirit of working Harder. It doesn’t mean simply pushing yourself to do more of the actual work you do. Sometimes it means that (sure, go on and give it 110%, leave it all on the field), but it’s also more than that. Working Harder is about doing more, trying more, and giving the universe more opportunities to make you happy.

The Best of Both Worlds

The power of No is in reclaiming your decision-making from outside forces, and freeing yourself from the noise and distractions of life. The power of Yes is keeping an open mind to discover new avenues to joy and success.

Conclusion? Say No more often. Say Yes more often, too. Each will help you build a better life. Think I’ve lost it? Wondering how it’s possible to increase both?

It would be easy to assume that we are always saying one or the other, and that the problem is that we just don’t always pick the right one. But that’s not really it. The real issue here is the amount of time that we’re not committing to either, and letting inertia and entropy decide for us. Complacency makes its own decisions. What we need is to be intentional. We need to think about what we’re saying No to, and what we’re saying Yes to, and make those choices for ourselves. Decide what really is important. 

When you make more intentional choices, removing from your life that which offers little value, while at the same time welcoming exciting new opportunities, you take control over the shape of your life. You take control over your own situation, your own destiny even.

Yes and No, yin and yang, less and more, PB and J, Smarter and Harder (oh hey there, nice to see you). Life is juicier when we give complementary opposites the chance to keep one another in balance. Stop treating it as Yes vs. No, and start to think about what Yes and No can accomplish together.

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Hey, I’m Sam. I created this blog to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

4 thoughts on “How to Say No (and When to Say Yes)”

    • Thank you! I think we make so many decisions throughout the day without even noticing that we’re making them. Highlighting that was one of my main intentions in creating this post, giving people a chance to realize that we have more control than we often realize 🙂


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