August 6, 2019

If you say “yes” all the time, what are you missing out on?

A guest post by Dr. Aaron George

The modern business classic “Getting to Yes” offers lessons on the art of negotiation and the importance of seeking agreement.  For physicians like me, daily efforts to get to “yes” are part of the craft, including guiding patient decision-making on smoking cessation, vaccination and taking medication, among countless others.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that those of us who spend our professional days working to get others to “yes” find it challenging to say “no” in our personal lives. Yet, split-second yes-or-no decisions about how we spend our time can be among the most impactful choices we make, even if they often seem innocuous or insignificant.

Such as:

  • “Do you want to grab a bite to eat after work?”
  • “Could you jump on a conference call tomorrow night”
  • “Would you be interested in helping work on a book chapter?”

We have all experienced these easy “yes” moments.  They seem to just roll off the tongue effortlessly, yet often result in consternation and regret when the time and commitment come to call.

What appears to be a black-and-white decision is in reality so much more complex. “Yes” feels affirmative, positive and confers immediate gratification from the ability to please someone else.  The trouble is that for every overt “yes” that comes out of our mouths, we are also uttering a hidden “no” to something or someone else.

The consequences of “yes” all the time

Our decision to say “yes” or “no” to projects or social events fundamentally impacts our roles as leaders, how we communicate and how well our work-life integration works (or doesn’t).  This is because every time we say “yes” to going out for a drink, we are simultaneously saying “no” to the gym or to an extra hour of sleep. In this era of widespread burnout in medicine and beyond, the ability to confidently and respectfully say “no” influences both our short-term well-being and long-term career development. Most importantly, it can be good for our mental and physical health to preserve much needed time for rest, exercise and reflection.

For many leaders, saying “no” often carries a sense of guilt. They may feel a need justify their lack of participation. Particularly when it comes to collegial activities, it is important to recognize that it is OK to say “no” without providing justification in many scenarios.

I am as guilty as anyone of trying to fill every hour of my day. However, when we do so, we run the risk of quickly becoming overwhelmed, or worse, we exceed our capacity. When we fail to skillfully say “no” to the small things, we deny ourselves the space and time to seize opportunities that we may not anticipate. When we say “no,” we leave some time flexible for projects that have not yet been identified.  This allows us to be nimble and have some buffer to manage an unexpected priority or opportunity that presents itself.

Learning to say “no”

If you are someone who has trouble saying “no,” you might want to ease into it. Start small and commit to saying declining one thing this week. Consider practicing with a trusted friend or colleague who will not take offense.

Another way to ease in involves applying a caveat by using the “yes, and…” technique. This approach retains the affirmative response, yet enables you to set boundaries or limits.  It might look like this:

“…yes, and I will need to leave by 9 p.m.”


“…yes, and I would like to recommend we bring Sarah in to help with the chapter as well.”

If it seems daunting to get more comfortable with saying “no,” start with the wise words of Pythagoras, “The oldest, shortest words – ‘yes’ and ‘no’ – are those which require the most thought.”  Give yourself and those around you the time to make the right commitments. Skilled leaders do just that, by encouraging others to value and judiciously guard their own time, while also understanding and valuing their own time and capacity.

Your time management toolkit

Getting comfortable with saying “no” is not easy, and it takes time.  You’ll need more than one tool in your toolkit.  Here are some insights and tools I keep in mine:

  • Saying “no” allows us to restore energy, increase downstream productivity, decrease stress and leave space open for unexpected ventures or opportunities.
  • Be purposeful about the things you commit to, and take your time in answering requests.
  • Be willing to see possibility, and look beyond “yes” and “no” as a dichotomous decision. There may be a middle ground.

How do you balance “yes” and “no” in your own life?

I’d love to hear some other ideas in the comments.

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Related posts:

Learning how to say the strategic yes!

A season for rest, recreation and re-creation

For better work-life integration, embrace authenticity