September 2019
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © convisum/

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.




The Power of “No”

In the first half of 2019, one of the popular self-help/self-improvement challenges was "Say yes to everything." You may have seen some of your friends and colleagues accept this challenge on social media.

"Say yes to everything" is based on the idea that we become closed off to new experiences, new opportunities, and new friendships, and sometimes need a reminder to get out of our stodgy, small comfort zones.

I applaud the original motivation behind this trend. However, I disagree with it for three reasons:

First, it is true that aging causes many people to become more fearful and to contract their lives to a tiny, manageable realm of home and neighborhood. But it is equally common for people to find the aging process liberating; they no longer care what other people think and are willing to try things to please themselves, rather than others. And it seems that many older women, particularly those who still lead active careers, fall into this latter category. Every day, I interact with competent, bold, older women who fearlessly take on new challenges.

Second, "say yes to everything" fails to address the real problem that plagues business professions: namely, we are already over-committed, over-scheduled, and too busy. We don’t need to say "Yes" to more things; rather, we need to learn to say "No".

Finally, it places people in an uncomfortable situation of committing to invitations that they cannot financially afford, or agreeing to activities that conflict with their beliefs or undermine another goal (such as getting fit or losing weight, or even getting more sleep every night).

Burnout, stress, and overload

Think about your department. Do you have one editor or content developer who always seems to be involved in more projects than anyone else? Chances are, this person is:


  • femail
  • experienced (over 20 years in the profession)
  • extremely competent
  • perceived as helpful, supportive, or generous

This person – let’s call her Carol – is already way too busy with her own work. Bob, on the other hand, is doing far less. Yet when the VP of Marketing wants another pair of eyes to review the newsletter, he asks Carol, not Bob. He knows that Carol is methodical, will do the best possible job, and will meet his deadline. Bob, he fears, will not prioritize this extra work, or will not treat it with the same seriousness as his normal workload. Bob, in other words, is less likely to accommodate an extra demand.

Carol knows that she can do a good job on the requested review. She is too busy, and she knows that there are other writers or editors in the Tech Pubs department who are equally qualified to do the work. But she has trouble saying "No" to any request for help. Whether through social conditioning or corporate culture, Carol has become an easy target for everyone. While statistically, the overworked over-obliger is a female over 35, we recognize that anyone, of any age or gender, could be the one who has trouble saying "No".

Jess Ekstrom, a successful young business entrepreneur, wrote about the jam-packed busy schedules that have become the norm. "I started to realize that saying yes to everything was putting me on a path to burnout."

Why do we say "Yes"?

There are many good reasons to say “Yes” but, unfortunately, there are also many bad reasons:


  • Fear of not being liked. Of course, it is nice to have people like us, but it is unrealistic and counterproductive to prioritize likeability on the job. It is sufficient that people respect your knowledge and skills and do not have any problems working with you; they don’t need to consider you a dear friend as well.
  • Fear of being fired. If you take on extra work because you are afraid to say "No", you are being coerced. You are doing things that are outside the scope and understanding of your contract and are not being paid or rewarded for that work. This is an unfair and toxic situation that will ultimately create an unpleasant work environment.
  • Lack of clarity about who is really responsible. It is not always a bad thing to step in and help when no one else is responsible. But what about when there is a designated person who is supposed to handle this work? Poor communication may lead to duplication of work, scheduling conflicts, and angry coworkers.

Why I choose to say “No”

Before I agree to something, I ask myself the following questions:


  • Does this help my business? If doing something outside the scope of a project with a client will not improve my work relations with them or create an opportunity for additional billable work, it is much easier to say "No".
  • Does this help my career? If doing this does not teach me new skills or allow me to try something that I would not have an opportunity to do within my regular work or put me in contact with people in different departments or groups, then there is little benefit.
  • Will doing this create problems with my regular work? If doing this will force me to work unreasonable hours to meet my deadlines, I don’t need that kind of stress!
  • Does this promote a cause that I support? I may choose to do something because I believe in the goal or the organization. It is far easier for me to say "No" to volunteer work that is not connected to something that I consider worthy.
  • Does this sound fun? I like live music, but I know myself well enough to know that I will not enjoy a crowded, smoky nightclub, or a show that doesn’t start until well past my normal bedtime. With each passing year, I find it easier to say "No" to invitations to something with which I have a proven (negative) track record.
  • Is the commitment reasonable? If this thing requires a long, ongoing commitment (for example, joining a choir and being available for rehearsal twice a week), then the potential risk is far greater than a one-time event, such as reviewing a document or writing a recommendation or going out to see a movie.

When you do say "Yes", mean it!

Being more discerning and saving my time and energy means that when I do say "Yes", I can commit wholeheartedly. I won’t feel coerced or uncertain. I can choose my volunteer work to suit my schedule and interests rather than be pressured into something that only adds to my stress.

Further, what may be OK right now may not suit me in another year or two. Don’t be afraid to say "No" to something that no longer suits your schedule, your interests, or your goals. Too often, people remain stuck doing something over and over that they no longer value or enjoy.

So, by all means, say "Yes" – but only if you have carefully ruled out the many reasons to say "No"!


What do you think? Do you need to embrace more risk and adventure by saying "Yes" or do you need to protect your time and energy by learning to say "No"? Do you have any tips to share on how to say "No" gracefully?