Why Saying No Saved My Career

Sophie Miura

I knew I’d hit rock bottom when I found myself walking through the office lobby at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. I’d spent almost a year in a fabulous job, and my Type A personality was set in eternal yes mode. After that pivotal moment, I discovered one word that could save my career (and sanity): no. I’m not the only one singing the praises of a well-considered no. Lena Dunham recently declared she’s in “yes recovery.” A New York Times article declared that it’s time we moved beyond the “cult of likability” and stop seeking gratification from every facet of our lives. The cure? Saying no. Really. Read on to discover six lessons I learned from saying no, and why it could save your career, too.

We live in a culture where yes is always the right answer. Shonda Rhimes’s bestseller, Year of Yes, might offer an appealing mantra, but in practice, it’s quite a different reality. “The common self-help wisdom is that we benefit from seizing opportunities, embracing the unknown, soaring headfirst into the possibilities presented to us,” says Lena Dunham in a recent LinkedIn article. The reality? We find ourselves overworked, overcommitted, stressed, and tired. Breaking a yes addiction is empowering because it gives us an opportunity to rethink our schedule and actively spend time on what really matters.

Learning to say no isn’t about turning away opportunities or dismissing colleagues, it’s about finding a way to respond with authenticity. Before my no epiphany, I’d commit myself to tasks that I knew weren’t possible. In the end, the need to please stops being a positive quality and could start to damage your career. Next time you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself, Can I realistically fulfill this request? Is this the best way I could use my skills? Is there a smarter way to work? Rephrase your response so that it’s clear you’re voicing a concern, not dismissing a request. Be solution-oriented, and articulate that you want to find a good outcome. Rephrasing your no invites your colleague into a discussion to find a compromise together.

If you’ve ever felt stressed and overworked, you’re not alone. When you stop saying yes to every task, you invite people into your life. There’s something humbling about admitting you’re busy. It’s real. Dunham says her road to yes recovery was slow, because she often felt unable to ask for help. “No is a word that could have served me well many times, but I didn’t ever feel I had the right to use it,” she says. The next time you want to say no, use it as an opportunity to share your experience. Chances are that your colleagues and friends can relate.

When yes is your career catchphrase, it can be scary to say no. I’d become known as the girl who responded to emails in the middle of the night and dropped by the office on weekends. Would my boss see this change in attitude as an issue? Overcoming the need to be liked is one of the biggest challenges. “A delightful cocktail of self-doubt blended with the need for constant approval had me convinced that yes was the key to my likability, says Dunham. "Without yes, what did I have to offer?” Likewise, I was convinced my career identity was so tightly intertwined with being a yes person that I wasn’t sure of my value beyond it. In his New York Times article, Bret Easton Ellis says the risk of “being falsely polite just to be accepted by the herd” is even stronger today, thanks to a growing need to receive likes on social media. For me, starting to say no was like a detox. I built confidence when I realized my value wasn’t tied to pleasing others.

Managing your workload isn’t just a smarter career decision; it also benefits your health. Dr Libby Weaver, author of Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, says our never-ending to-do list could contribute to adrenal fatigue and an ultimate burnout. “The role of stress on our body is undeniable,” says Weaver. “When we learn to slow down and stop multitasking, our body benefits.” By balancing tasks, we can step out of the “tired but wired” mind-set and allow our body to move beyond a fight-or-flight response.

Two weeks after my no revelation, I noticed a change in the way I worked with my colleagues. People respected my time and would come to me for advice rather than hands-on help. My editor commented that I was hitting targets. My social life returned, and I was leaving work at a reasonable hour. It turns out my desire to do everything was at the root of my problem. It was self-sabotage. By introducing a reasoned and carefully worded no into my workplace vocabulary, I became more competent, honest, and happy. What’s even better is that I never found myself in the office lobby at 5 a.m. on a Sunday again.

Interested in learning more about how saying no and prioritizing your time could help your career? Shop the selection of books below!

Are you in yes recovery? Share your experience in the comments below!

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