How to Say No

Out of all the small frames to adopt that can cause massive change, the strongest one may be learning how to say no.

We live in a cultural environment where everything we take part in can be co-opted by others in some way, so learning to say no enables us to liberate ourselves, our time, and also regain a sense of control over our world.

Here, then, is a primer of the lost art of actually owning your time.

Why saying no is important

Saying no is critical to the success of your business and personal life because it allows you to reclaim an incredible amount of lost time– time that you didn’t even want to give away in the first place, and that you don’t even really know is yours. We feel the need to agree to a bunch of requests all the time because we have an obsession with pleasing people that we learned long ago from parents or society in general.

Because it’s so pervasive, it can only be changed slowly, loosening the reigns that others have over you with several slow steps. Each of these are beneficial on their own, but put together, they’ll teach you a lot.

So take these steps, one at a time, until you get to the end. Do them as often as possible until they become second nature. If one of the steps already is, then move ahead, but try each one of them at least once to see if you encounter any resistance while doing it.

Step 1. Stop opening unwanted mail.

You probably do this already, but we wanted to mention it as a first step in the changing of your frame because you already clearly understand what unwanted mail is– spam. When you see credit card applications, you realize its someone trying to get you to behave in a manner you don’t want to, by buying something or subscribing to some magazine. Nothing good can come of this. Shred and recycle unwanted mail and forget it even existed.

Step 2. Stop reading/watching advertisements.

This is only a small stretch from what we’ve described above, so no big deal. Advertisements in magazines are distractions that are intended to dissatisfy you by making you feel that you want something you don’t have, but once you have the object in question, they don’t talk about how fleeting that sense of satisfaction is.

This step might seem like it’s only tangentially related to the art of saying no, but it’s actually pretty important. Once you recognize that incoming messages (from either media or people) are largely irrelevant to you and almost never urgent even if they are relevant, you start to see how much more control you already have– and can get back.

Step 3. Stop habitually picking up the phone.

Is your house on fire? We’re going to guess it isn’t. That said, practically everyone we know picks up the phone whenever it rings, wherever they are and whomever they’re with, relegating whatever they were actually doing at that moment to the backburner until the caller is done with them.

You don’t need to behave this way. Your mobile phone is just one more incoming source of distraction you don’t need to pay homage to. It’s an outsider asking for your attention– it’s a request, not an order. If the caller has important information, they’ll leave a message, text you, or call back. When I was in Japan after Trust Agents was written, I effectively left my life for a whole month. No emergencies occurred, no horrible thing happened. Everything went just fine.

You can definitely do the same for a day. Try carrying your phone around with you all day, but watching all calls hit voicemail. Take note of who calls, and call them back the next day if you feel the need to. But avoid it for 24 hours. Later on, assess whether you lost or gained from the experiment– make the decision yourself whether each call was important.

Step 4. Saying no through email.

You can probably tell by now that each one of these steps is a slow process of putting control of several parts of your life back into your hands. The next step is email, but it could have just as easily been before the phone, so do this one first if its easier.

Email is the easiest way for someone to reach a million people at zero cost so, for this very same reason, it’s among the most taken advantage of. People abuse web communication most of all because it’s difficult for people to see that you also have 500 other emails in your inbox with the same level of urgency as theirs. Thankfully, email is also distant enough from real people that it’s good training wheels for saying no. On the electronic level, we start here, because it’s easy and effective.

Saying no to email is different than using priority inbox. Priority inbox is not seeing any incoming messages in the first place, but this method helps you look at incoming requests and actively delete or refuse them, denying them control over your time. The distinction is important.

So say no by email to a few requests, whether parties you don’t want to go to, or favours you don’t want to do. But here’s the key: tell the truth. Do not, under any circumstances, make excuses– they are another form of avoidance as pervasive as saying yes. Don’t avoid answering the email either; just quickly press reply and explain that, no, you can’t participate in this or that thing. If you want to, explain why– but that’s optional. Why? Because it’s your right to decide not to do anything, and you don’t need a reason for it.

Step 5. Stop reading blog posts.

This step was recommended by Rufus and desperately needs to be added. Yeah, I know, you’re reading this on a blog. Amazing right? Still, when you subscribe to blogs, you’re basically offering up future time of yours, and as a result, devaluing your own future. Ask yourself why you’re doing this.

The concept of a “backlog” is flawed unless it is one of your own choosing. By definition, this permission marketing stuff basically says, “you can have my future attention as long as you use it wisely,” but often, people who push information through their channels don’t.

I’m sitting here at the TED conference and just watched Al-Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar spoke about what was happening in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. I thought about how this channel is respectful of their audience, vs CNN, for example, whose mockery of news has started including things like Lindsay Lohan upskirt pictures.

For this reason, you should stop reading blog posts for a week via your RSS reader. During that week, what sites do you go to? Those are the ones you actually care about. Start with those– fresh. The rest should be flushed.


If you’ve taken all the steps we’ve mentioned so far, you’re probably feeling at least a little bit more powerful than you do on the average day. You might also be enjoying your time more since it isn’t interrupted as often, like when you get up very early and no one is up. You might also recognize this feeling as one similar to the kind of freedom you feel on long plane rides, except that now, you can get it whenever you like.

This sense of power is important for you to have before you proceed to the next steps. But there are a lot more steps than these. What follows is more intimidating, and harder to get the nerve to do when the moment arises.

To be continued. See you then.





25 responses to “How to Say No”

  1. Hugh McGuire Avatar

    As our pal David Maister says: “Strategy is deciding what not to do.”

  2. Chel Wolverton Avatar

    I don’t know why people feel obligated to answer the phone at a bad time. If it feels like an interruption, then don’t answer it.

    It’s really okay to say no to someone asking for your help. The important thing is to keep it honest and straightforward without hashing the reasons you are saying no. There is zero need for justification of valuing your time.

    And if you choose to say yes make sure that you and the other person understand exactly what you’re committing to do.

  3. Rufus Dogg Avatar

    You forgot to say: Don’t read new blog posts when they pop up in your feed list. Damn it!! I just did that… Well, I’m not going to comment.. argghhhh.. you’re from the devil, Julien 🙂

  4. NomadicNeill Avatar

    I’d go the whole hog and ditch the TV.

    The benefits of not watching far outweigh the drawbacks (are there any?)

  5. Fave Avatar

    The art of saying no (for the sake of my sanity) is a battle in which this post has given me more ammo. I believe we’re here to help others, but not at the expense of our souls.

  6. Marc-André Avatar

    I don’t answer my phone or emails if I am busy or with someone. It’s saves a huge amount of time.

    A few months back, I deleted all blogs from my RSS reader and started fresh. I only have about 12 now, 12 that matter very much.

  7. Leanna Avatar

    I also found that unsubscribing from listservs that no longer served me, and marketing emails from various lists I’d signed up for were a huge way to cut back on the noise.

    And ditching the TV is awesome. Even though you sometimes feel left out when people are discussing Top Chef or Superbowl commericials.

  8. Katrina Miller-Fallick Avatar

    I do this with the phone. I let most calls go to voice mail if I’m doing something else. This means that easily 90% of people who call me get my VM.

    The thing is, I’ve received a LOT of negative feedback over this policy. My family hates it and lectures me on it, and I even lost a client, because I couldn’t promise him that I would ALWAYS answer my phone.

  9. Charlie Riley Avatar

    I constantly find myself taking calls or responding to people when more pressing things are required.

    It’s hard to say no to people exactly why you described: you genuinely want to help or please others. But doing something with a limited amount of attention or effort because of being puled in too many directions can do more harm than good. I’m getting better at those two magic letters, but it’s hard.

  10. Tina Roggenkamp Avatar

    How about ditching twitter, facebook, etc.? I have regained a lot of time just doing that.

    Working on downgrading cable, though it’s more to save money than find time. I don’t really watch it that much and prefer documentaries, etc. on netflix.

  11. C Avatar

    I will take your advice and stop reading your blog. Thanks for the tips.

    1. Julien Avatar

      Perfect. I’m serious. if you don’t get value out of it, you should definitely leave.

  12. Ray Avatar

    Being a glass half full kinda guy, I just prefer to say “yes” far more discriminately.

    Yes, I haven’t checked into my reader for days. And yes, like Tina, I downgraded my cable to the basics (dwat, don’t get CNN anymore)and yes, have unsusbribed to at least a dozen e-newsletters in the last couple of weeks.

  13. Steve Jones Avatar

    As a blogger/writer, I can’t believe I’m going to agree with the “Don’t read blog posts”. But you are correct.
    Fleeting interests attract us to subscribe to blogs that, for the most part, we never read. The ones you go out of your way to find are the ones to read.
    As a blogger I guess I have to hope my content is compelling enough to make that list!

  14. Jelena Avatar

    It is, I think, about selection.
    Knowing what your priority is and making a choice.
    And I am sorry, but some blogs I just cannot miss 🙂
    P.S. Not forget to stay human !

  15. Larry Lawfer Avatar

    I say no to saying no and that you have it wrong. We are defined, in our lives, by what we say yes to. Reading blogs, answering the phone, returning emails in a timely fashion define us as humans. What you choose to say yes to is a decision that is far more important. Is glass is half full, or half empty. By wisely choosing what you will do you put behind you all the things that you have chosen not to do. For instance, I just will never read one of your blogs that uses weak and foul language in it’s headline. It screams manipulative and “look at me I am cool” when really I know you to be far more thoughtful. That is just me. I choose to say yes as many times as I can in my day. The results define me.

  16. Martyn Chamberlin Avatar

    You’re right on target here.

    This is easy advice to follow when you’re not connected. When your phone’s not in your pocket and your computer’s in the other room, it’s pretty easy to ignore the Internet. But when you’re connected … it’s a lot harder.

    It’s hard spending two or three hours writing without checking Twitter.

    I’m still working on this.


  17. Peter Paluska Avatar


    I generally find that, for some reason, anytime I am WITH somebody they always answer their cellphone, yet when I call them, they never answer and I always have to leave a message.
    But anyway, yes, since “no” is yin to “yes”‘s yang, it is an extremely vital point to consider. What we don’t do is a shadow world version of what we do.
    Thanks, Julien!


  18. Rick Avatar

    This is so true. As a minimalist, it’s fairly easy for me to purge and minimize the physical stuff, but saying no and keeping my calendar clear is another thing altogether. That fear of offending others if we say no just kills us. Yes, we want to please others, but in the process, we cheat ourselves out of the time WE need. Love this post and can’t wait to read the sequel!

  19. Daniel Johnson, Jr. Avatar

    I stopped keeping up with blog posts in my news reader awhile back. Those that I really want to stay on top of, I subscribe via email. Yours happens to be one of them. 🙂

  20. Kevin Westgate Avatar

    Absolutely agree with this post! It can be so hard to say no to the stuff that we absolutely cannot fit on our plate (or just dont want to fit) Its a steep learning curve, but once you get the hang of it its not hard at all.

  21. Chris Burdge Avatar

    I was having lunch with a client the other day. His phone rang. He looked at the number and said to me “do you mind if I take this, it’s my wife”. OK, I can respect that. Other than that – yeah let it ring. That’s what voice mail is for. I rarely answer my phone. That’s what email is for…

  22. Gab Goldenberg Avatar

    hey Julien,

    I subscribe to your blog and am glad I do, because when i periodically open that tab in my reader I get a delightful assault of the awesome titles you write and feel compelled to click through to read your great content. I know there are no vocal tones online, but I’m being serious, not sarcastic.

    Anyways, I think subscribing is valuable as a way to prompt your memory – my reader is partly about who I have relationships with and who I want to maintain relationships with! Including you. So yeah, i’m glad to read this and happy to comment!

  23. Aru Avatar

    i think the point here was more about pleasing everyone and finding it difficult to say No to ppl. if we were all sensible about how we behave then this whole conversation would not be happening. is just saying No is perfectly acceptable because do you think any less of the person who said No to you?

  24. Robert Avatar

    I have a neighbor that crashed her car. She asked me to drive her to the store so she could buy cigarettes, I said OK, but don’t make this a habit. She made it a habit. Every time I said yes, I was pissed at myself for being a wuss, taking time from what I was doing, for what, to be a nice guy? Finally I said no, no reason why, just no. She stopped calling after the second “no”. She found some other “nice” people. I say yes, but never when I feel “used”, it’s a small thing, but being in control of your yes’s, and no’s, is a quality of life enhancer.

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