How to say NO to make yourself a better writer

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If you want to make more time for writing you’re going to need to learn how to say no….

Are you a pleaser and accommodator? Are the letters N and O foreign to your vocabulary?

If so, I have bad news for you. You’re unlikely to become a successful writer. (And if you’re in business, you’re unlikely to be a successful executive. And if you’re an athlete, you’re unlikely to win many medals. And if you’re…. Well, you get the picture.)

To be successful at anything, you need to devote a certain amount of time to it. And that devotion is going to require you to say no.

No to the extra report your boss wants you to prepare.

No to the meeting you really don’t have time to attend.

No to the home-baked brownies for your daughter’s grade 3 class party.

No to fitting in “just one more client” for your freelance business.

No to spending 20 minutes on Facebook.

Lest you think I’m consigning you to becoming a hermit, or refusing to let you volunteer for anything, ever, let me emphasize that you don’t need to say no all the time.

For example, a while ago, I had a friend whose 57-year-old sister was dying. They both needed a lot of support and I contacted another good friend of mine who was professionally equipped to give them something I couldn’t. Keep in mind that he didn’t know my friend or her sister and he is an unbelievably busy person.

But when he received my phone call, and heard the story he dropped everything and raced to the hospital. (In fact, as we were speaking on the phone, he said something I’ll never forget. He said, “I’m walking to the car as I’m speaking with you.” I was in awe of his decisiveness and his generosity.)

Here’s the interesting part: I hadn’t seen this good friend for more than six months because he had been too busy (i.e.: he said no to me too many times to count). But when the chips were down, he was able to say ‘yes’. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it was his willingness to say no so frequently that left him in the position to say yes when it really mattered.

If you want to write, you need to be able to say no to give yourself the time for writing. Remember: time is always much more valuable than money because we never know how much of it we’re going to have. Also, money can be saved and spent later. And lost money can often be regenerated. Neither of those two facts is true about time.

HOW to say no

I used to be an automatic yes-person but when I was in my mid-20s, I started adding no to my vocabulary. Here is how I did it:

  • I stopped myself from ever saying yes to anything right away. Instead, I’d say, “that sounds interesting. Can you give me a couple of days to think it over and make sure I have the necessary time to devote to it?” This phrase is an excellent transitional one, as you work to become better at saying no. It will give you the chance to marshal your arguments (which are often arguments with yourself). And if you do want to say yes, you will have preserved that option.
  • Be aware that you — like everyone else in the world — will have the tendency to underestimate the time most tasks will take. When considering new tasks, always be sure to add in a significant buffer time – something like 50 to 75 per cent more time than you think necessary.
  • Be sure to weigh what economists call “opportunity cost.” If you are doing task A it may leave you too busy to do task B (writing). Worse, even though you may still have the time to write, working on task A may leave you too tired or exhausted to do it.
  • Ask yourself whether you’d be equally enthusiastic about the new job/role/task if you had to do it today. If not, that’s a pretty clear indicator you should say no.
  • Also ask yourself whether the job/role/task aligns with your own goals and priorities. If it does, that should bump it up to a ‘maybe’; if it doesn’t, that’s another clear no.
  • Check in with your body. Does the idea of the request make you feel excited or exhausted? If it’s the former, you’re in maybe-land. If it’s the latter, you should be heading towards a no.
  • If you feel some social obligation to say yes (I’m thinking of the brownies for your daughter’s grade 3 party, for example) consider another alternative. For example, could you buy something from a store or bakery rather than make them yourself? Do you know of someone else who might be able to do the job more easily than you?
  • If you do need to deliver a no, always START with the word no. Say, “No, I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to help you with XYZ next week.” Many people like to begin with the excuse or the reason (e.g.: “I have a big report that’s due at work next week so I’m not going to be able to help you with XYZ.”) If you feel you do need to provide an explanation then give it AFTER the no. You will sound much stronger and more secure that way — and then others are much less likely to try to talk you into doing the task against your wishes.
  • Consider practicing your no before you deliver it. You want to be able to say the line with confidence and certainty. There mustn’t be a scintilla of doubt or indecision in your voice.

Special rules for saying no to bosses or clients

It’s one thing to turn down a volunteer task from your local PTA or your homeowner’s association but the stakes become much higher when you need to say no to a boss or client. Here’s how to handle those higher-stakes situations:

  • If you’re in a workplace that sucks up your day with endless (often useless) meetings, take control with your calendar. Using Outlook or a service like Calendly or Bookeo, mark blocks of time when you are available for meetings and be clear about which times are not available and let everyone in your office know about your new habit. In this fashion, your calendar will be doing the speaking for you, which is a lot easier and less time-consuming than having to speak for yourself.
  • If your boss asks you to take an additional job, (politely) ask him or her what you should give up to be able to accommodate this request. For example, you might say, “Sure! I’m happy to write that new report by next Friday, but in order to do that I’m going to have to put the MacDonald file on the backburner. Are you OK with that?” Your cheerful and quick rejoinder will force your boss to be more realistic about what you are expected to do and will leave no room for criticism about your attitude.
  • If a client asks you to add additional work in an existing contract (you actually have a contract, right?!) tell them you’ll be happy to do it if they can remove something else. Again, take great pains to be friendly and polite with this conversation and maybe even suggest something that could be removed from the contract. But don’t ever give away your time for no charge. It’s unfair to you and it’s likely unfair to the client, too, because taking on too much work with inadequate pay is going to cause you to do a shoddier job overall.

I know it sounds negative to be saying no all the time. But in fact, saying no is what will allow you to say YES! to your writing. Remember my friend who was able to fit in a visit to a dying woman because of his comfort with saying no. You, too, can make plenty of time for your writing once you learn to say no.


Do you want some help saying yes to writing? Consider applying to my Get It Done program. Deadline for applying to this three-month accountability group (starting June 1) is this Friday, May 24. To apply, go here and scroll down to the very end and select the bright green “click here to apply now” button.


My video podcast last week aimed to help university and college students write better personal statements. Or, see the transcript, and consider subscribing to my YouTube channel. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email, Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.


How do you say no to protect your writing time?  We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by May 31/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book Pitch Anything by Oren Klaff. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!

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