This will help you say no with confidence

Apr 18, 2023
2023-04-18 Intentional Productivity blog image - say no

I’ve got a straight-to-the-point practice for you today.

If you feel overworked, overwhelmed, or otherwise overcommitted, you could probably do with some extra time, energy, and space in your day. (Am I right?)

You can begin carving this out for yourself by saying no to the whirlwind of things pulling you in 100 different directions.

So, let’s talk about when and how to do that.



1 thing to apply


Very simply, I want you to apply what we’re about to break down and say no to something today.


3 main benefits

  • Evaluating new and current commitments helps you get clear on what you value.
  • Saying no to empty obligations creates space in your day for what matters to you.
  • This frees up time and energy, which you can then use to invest in your priorities and wellbeing.


5 minutes or less


I'm sure you already know why saying no is an important practice; it's likely the how that's the trouble. Use the questions and examples below to determine when to say no and how to do so with kindness and confidence.


1. Evaluate “good opportunities”

Oftentimes, a “good opportunity” is, in fact, an obligation in disguise. Ask yourself a few questions before committing to something new:

  • Is this a good opportunity for me? Does it align with my vision and values?
  • Does this align with my current goal(s)? Will it bring me closer to my desired result?

2. Commit to un-committing yourself

Evaluate where you can—and maybe need to—walk away from any existing commitments that no longer serve you.

  • Make a list of empty obligations (most commonly identified by guilt and “should”) that you’re currently committed to.
  • Next, ask yourself this one challenging yet effective question: If I weren't already in this situation, would I seek it out?
  • Be honest with yourself, and plan next steps accordingly.

3. Practice pleasantly saying no

A pleasant no goes a long way. Here are three of my favourite examples to show how you can say no without being rude or robotic:


Example 1

The first example is from Stephen Covey’s famous book, The 7 Habits Highly Effective People:

Sometime ago, my wife was invited to serve as chairman of a committee in a community endeavour. She had a number of truly important things she was trying to work on, and she really didn’t want to do the new assignment. But she felt pressured into it and finally agreed. Then she called one of her dear friends to ask if she would serve on her committee. Her friend listened for a long time and then said,

“Anita, that sounds like a wonderful project, a really worthy undertaking. I appreciate so much your inviting me to be a part of it. I feel honored by it. For a number of reasons, I won’t be participating myself, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your invitation.”

Anita was ready for anything but a pleasant no. She turned to me and sighed, “I wish I’d said that.”


The next two examples are real responses Tim Ferriss received when asking well-known and successful professionals to be part of his book, Tribe of Mentors. Both offer a bit of personal context alongside an always-welcome dash of humour (because saying no doesn’t have to be cruel or make you feel guilty!).


Example 2

This one comes from NYT best-selling author, Neal Stephenson:

Sorry for the slow response and thanks for thinking of me in this context.

It has become pretty obvious of late that I’m trying to do too much, and so I started an experiment of not adding anything whatsoever to my “to-do” list, so that it wouldn’t get any longer.

The result is that the items that were ALREADY on my “to-do” list only spawned more items as I crossed them off, and so it’s a little like fighting a hydra. I am hoping that if I am ruthlessly efficient, I can one day get to the point where the list actually gets shorter instead of longer.

In the meantime, unfortunately, the “ruthlessly efficient” part of this plan means that I am turning down things like this just as a blanket policy.

Again, thanks for thinking of me, and good luck with the project!



Example 3

Perhaps my favourite response is from Wendy MacNaughton, NYT best-selling illustrator and graphic journalist. This one is so charmingly honest it somehow makes you like her even more after reading it (even though she is clearly saying no to the request):

Gah. OK. I’ve been battling with this, and here’s the deal: after five intense years of creative output and promotion, interviews about personal journeys and where ideas come from, after years of wrapping up one project one day and jumping right into promoting another the next… I’m taking a step back. I recently maxed out pretty hard, and for the benefit of my work, I gotta take a break. Over the past month, I’ve cancelled contracts and said no to new projects and interviews. I’ve started creating space to explore and doodle again. To sit and do nothing. To wander and waste a day. And, for the first time in five years, I’m finally in a place where there’s no due date tied to every drawing. No deadline for ideas. And it feels really right.

So, while I really wanted to do this with you—I respect you and your work and am honored that you’d ask me to participate—and as capital S stupid as it is for me professionally not to do it, I’m going to have to say thank you, but… I gotta pass. I’m simply not in a place to talk about myself or my work right now. (Crazy for a highly verbal only child to say.) Hopefully, we will get a chance to talk somewhere down the line—I promise any thoughts I’ll have for you then will be far more insightful than anything I can share with you right now.

I hope the space created by my absence is filled by one of the brilliant people I suggested in my previous email.

And really, thank you so much for your interest. I’ll be kicking myself when the book comes out.



4. Use a formula or template

There’s no doubt saying no can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Feel free to rework any of the responses above or craft your own template. Here's a good formula to follow:

  • Express your gratitude
  • Acknowledge the value of their request or invitation
  • Communicate that you’ve considered their request
  • Politely decline (offer context if you like)
  • Reiterate your thanks

Or, if you want to dive deeper, the Intentional Productivity Masterclass has a whole module dedicated to saying no (complete with templates, reflection questions, and more examples in the 30+ page workbook).



Conclusion: Saying no to certain things allows you to invest your time and energy into what you truly value. And you can do so with kindness, confidence, and maybe even a bit of humour. 

Your time and energy are your most precious resources. As always, thank you for sharing some of yours with me today.

See you in two weeks!

— Melissa


PS. For added accountability, let me know on Twitter or Instagram what you’re saying no to, why, and how it feels. I'd love to cheer on your un-commitments! ðŸ¥‚ 



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