The art of saying no

"No." People hate to hear it, and you hate to say it — but how else can you manage your workload and maintain your sanity?
The art of saying no

Hero image by Gemma Evans

God knows, there’s a million things you have to do in order to build your freelance business. Not only are we entirely in charge of our schedules and the way we work, — we're also busy running the rest of our lives too.

And often (as we’re struggling to juggle everything there is to do) other people try to add their priorities to what’s already a very busy schedule. How many of these questions have you heard before? 

  • Question #1: “Can you help me out?”
  • Question #2: “Can you take a quick look at this document for me?”
  • Question #3: “I want to pick your brain on something. You have time to talk tomorrow? Won’t take long, I promise.”

Next thing you know, you end up feeling unorganized and overwhelmed. And then you struggle to find the time to get it all done. (And, if you freelance too, I'm guessing you know the feeling...)

In the scheme of all the things you want to do, how do you make sure you have the time and mental energy to drive your business forward? Today’s article is a must-read for freelancers who feel guilty when they have to say no… or, who take on every request asked of them, even when they don’t want to.

Before we dive in and take a deeper look at the power of the word "no," let’s examine what happens when someone says "yes" too often.

<tweet-link>You probably don't realize this but trying to be helpful may be jeopardizing your peace of mind<tweet-link>

Are you the “yes man” or the “yes woman” when it comes to your life? 

You know what I mean, right? 

You’re that person who can be counted on to say “yes” every time anyone asks anything of you. We all know that person; they're invaluable employees, leaders in their church or community organizations, and helpful neighbors. They're the ones who pitch in to keep things running smoothly, even if it’s not always easy or fun.

There’s just no easy way to say this, so I’m going to just come right out with it…

Saying "yes" to every request you receive is setting you up for trouble. Especially since you have an obligation to yourself to ensure that your business works for you. 

As Silvia Emma says, “If you don’t guard your time and your priorities, no one else will. Take care of your own business before you take care of anyone else’s. Failure to do so is self-defeating. If you spend most of your time helping others and not attending to your own needs, you will become tired, cranky and dejected. Then you won’t be able to help anyone, including yourself. The basic rule of self-preservation is to take care of yourself first. Once you do, then you can help others within reason and never to your detriment, at least not without thinking it through."

Some people equate being busy with having high status. In reality, busyness for its own sake isn’t really any sort of prize. <tweet-link>In the "real world," a clear calendar (or better yet, no calendar, no clock, and no clue what day of the week it is) is the real high status.<tweet-link>


Simple, because there are only so many hours in the day... and unless you learn to prioritize and master time management, you’ll end up spreading yourself thin and possibly burning out.

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything” ~ Warren Buffet

Too often, we say "yes" because we don’t want to seem unaccommodating or rude. As a result, it’s easy for us to become overwhelmed and overworked. In many cases, when you first start out freelancing, you may have more free time to accommodate requests and favors. It's manageable – a bit stressful –  but it's working…

Until it isn’t.

One minute you’re at the top of your game, and then WHAM – the painful truth hits you. You have way too much on your plate. 

<tweet-link>Let’s confront a stark truth: when you constantly say “yes” to everyone else, you are saying “no” to yourself by default.<tweet-link> 

Saying "no" to other people can be extremely hard. You’re afraid you’ll leave someone in the lurch, or that it will cause problems with your friends, family, or co-workers if you turn them down. But, the truth is, you need to set some boundaries for your own sanity. 

As essentialism advocate Greg McKeown says, “If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.”

That’s why all the top freelancers have one thing in common. They're hyper-aware of opportunity cost and factor it into every decision they make in a given day. In other words, they know because they have a finite amount of time, money, and focus, each choice they make has real-world consequences. When evaluating opportunities, they instinctively use the formula:

Opportunity cost = What you're sacrificing / what you're gaining

If you want to be a successful freelancer, never forget that time is more valuable than money. In order to get what you want out of life, you need to be intentional about where and how you spend your time.  

Saying yes can help you grow your business and take advantage of opportunities that come your way. And sometimes, saying "yes" is the right move to “keep the lights on."

But a lot of freelancers are so eager to please they’ll say "yes" to everything. (Then disappoint later.) This arrangement rarely ends well.

I don't know about you, but I used to feel pressure to accommodate everyone around me. I wanted to say "yes" to their requests for help and help out when I could. Then I realized saying "yes" to everything was a recipe for disaster because I’ll always have more demands on my schedule than time available to fulfill those requests. 

Now, don't get me wrong, I love to help people out. But, I don't like to waste time either. And, I need time for friends and family and to pursue my own hobbies and interests (TBH it's one of the driving reasons I became self-employed.)

Then I realized how important it was to start weighing my options before making a decision.

Whenever you say “yes” to one thing, or “no” to another thing, you're actually casting a "vote" on how to spend your time, money, and resources.

One thing that helped me? Learning how to move from saying "yes" to "no" when appropriate to safeguard my time and my priorities. As Damon Zahariades says in his book, The Art of Saying NO, “Saying no to people is one of the most important skills you can develop. It frees you to pursue your own interests, both personal and professional.”

It also helps protect you from all the competing demands on your time. We all have external expectations that weigh heavily on us and it can be easy to get sidetracked.

All of which is to say:  it’s easy to get into a cycle of saying “yes” to everything. And, in most cases, you’d be better served by finding ways to protect your focus.

No, seriously. 

According to Kevin Simler, software engineer and author of The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life, "external agents can, without our permission, alter the contents of our minds and send us scampering off in service of goals that are not ours."

And if that's not enough, life is full of decisions.

According to UNC-TV producer/reporter Frank Graff of North Carolina Science Now, "the average adult makes about 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day. Each decision, of course, carries certain consequences with it that are both good and bad." (Not to mention your attention being under siege from Slack notifications, unanswered emails, and basically, the entire internet.) Or, as journalist and author William Leith observes, "We are like rats in an experiment designed to get us to say yes. The experiment is relentless; it has almost unlimited resources and all the time in the world."

Consequently, identifying what to focus on can be incredibly stressful. Oh, and the fact that all too often, there are a lot of different priorities competing for our attention, and there are a lot of distractions trying their hardest to win it.

How can you solve this problem? To answer this, we first have to understand why people overcommit, and what to do about it. 

Here's why we're predisposed to saying “yes”... and how it can have negative consequences

There are lots of things you have to get done. 

That’s why prioritizing your tasks is more important than ever. 

This probably won’t come as a surprise, but, research shows that 64% of freelancers say stress, anxiety, or poor mental health has at some point had a negative impact on their ability to work while only 29% say looking after their own mental health is absolutely part of their plan to build a successful business.

Everything you say "yes" to at work, your personal life, and the myriad of commitments you take on each day demands something from you.  It could be time, energy, money, social capital, concentration--the list goes on. Saying “yes” too often can make you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or resentful because you are not able to meet all the demands placed upon you. When you say "yes" to something, you often must say "no" to something else. Say "yes" too often and the demands on your time begin to pile up until you’re spread too thin. That’s why it's better to be selective in what you commit to rather than agreeing to take on everything that’s offered.

Here's something to think about when you consider the best way to manage your time:

The true cost of saying "yes" is the total time and energy it takes away from other opportunities.

Which effectively means, when you commit to something, you’re also turning away other opportunities at the same time. We can’t do everything at once — we can’t be in more than one place at a time. So, it pays to take into account your limited resources and whether you could be doing something better with your time before you say "yes" or "no" to new commitments and deadlines.

For example, is saying "yes" taking you away from your core money-making tasks? Will saying "yes" drain your precious time and energy? If you commit to taking something on, can you realistically follow through on it?

If you’re like most people, you may tend to make yourself available without considering those important questions. This is super common. According to Nedra Tawwab, relationship therapist and author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself "We live in a society that does not glorify choosing yourself. It is not honoured. We are constantly living in others’ headspace and not our own heart space. We’re thinking about what they might say or do; whether they’ll be angry, or whether setting a boundary will even end the relationship."

But saying "yes" to everyone can lead to feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and eventually burnout.

If you're not careful, your agenda will become a collection of everyone else’s agendas.

“If your agenda is set by someone else and it doesn’t lead you where you want to go, why is it your agenda?”

~ Seth Godin

Once you start getting pulled in all kinds of directions, the situation will only get worse — unless you figure out a solution.

Time is your most limited and irreplaceable resource. Be careful how you spend it.

Saying "no" can help you cut out distractions and unnecessary tasks and keep your focus locked on the important things in your life. While saying "yes" to too much can mean spreading yourself too thin and jeopardizing your reputation, relationships and even health.

On the other hand, saying "no" when appropriate may be a cheat code, giving you more time and energy to focus on everything else you need to do to grow your biz. “The ability to communicate ‘no’ really reflects that you are in the driver’s seat of your own life,” said Vanessa M. Patrick, an associate professor of marketing at the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. “It gives you a sense of empowerment."

So how do we get there? There are a ton of articles and books about learning to say "no" but we need to dig deeper when deciding whether to say "yes" or "no" to opportunities.

The art of saying “No”: Simple but powerful tips for setting boundaries

Every freelancer faces a dilemma: Whether to {quit doing the thing they’re advising on and exclusively coach}, or say "no" to things that take time, energy and resources away from that goal.

How can you take a step back and diagnose the problem so you can adjust and move forward?

Although there isn’t a specific formula to evaluate opportunities as they come up, a good first step is taking a hard look at the decisions you face on a day-to-day basis. Do you have a system designed to give you clarity, and help you make a yes or no decision? If not, you're likely to end up feeling defeated by all the craziness.

Or, as Professor of Leadership Conor Neill says, "If you don’t say “no” to most things, you are dividing your life up into millions of little pieces spread out amongst other people’s priorities.”

To avoid this barrier to freelance success, you need a way to maintain the proper focus. Something to ensure you're concentrating on what you need to do… instead of allowing other people to eat up most of your time.

If you want to become dramatically more productive, you have to make a dramatic change in how you think about your time. Realize that you don’t have to say “yes” to everything and learn to say “no” when appropriate. Here are a few specific action steps you can take that may help:

When someone asks you to lend a hand, delay, then decide whether to decline or do it

Stop making decisions on autopilot. Instead, develop a system for managing your decisions that you can use to make sure saying "yes" makes sense for you. That way you’ll have a dependable process for evaluating the pros and cons of each option which will make it easier to say no to inconvenient appeals for your time. If you’re trying to decide whether you say yes or no to a request, Bruce Tulgan -- founder of management training firm RainmakerThinking and author -- suggests you use  “a framework that… has three parts: assess the ask, deliver a well-reasoned no, and give a yes that sets you up for success.” According to Tulgan, “If you become skilled at conveying both (yes and no), you can avoid burnout, increase your influence, and enhance your reputation.”

Be honest with yourself about how much time you actually have available

When you contemplate your next moves,  be honest about your personal time limitations. And once you commit to one thing, know that some other thing may not get done… and that’s ok!

Adam Aleksic, co-founder of the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society, says "the verb decide... (can be) trace(d) to the Latin verb caedere, meaning "to cut"... and decide is connected because when you make a choice, you cut out all the other possible choices. That means overcoming your fear of missing out (#FOMO).

Restructure your lifestyle

Research suggests that saying yes too often at work can lead to overstretched resources, reduced quality of work, and feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks. You may have to restructure your lifestyle if you find you don't have a spare moment for things you want to spend time on. Remember not every item on your to-do list is of equal importance. And guess what? You're going to have to develop the skill of saying "no" if you want to spend your time wisely. Sean McCabe summarized it this way: "While no can be a hard word to say, it’s the only tool we have for creating more time. Yes fills time. No makes time."

Practice politely declining

Being able to say no is a useful skill, yet it’s not always easy. When you have to say “no,” be assertive, honest and polite. Ramit Sethi advises people to use this script, “Thanks for this invitation. I’m flattered! Unfortunately, I’ve got my priorities set for the year and this just doesn’t fit in. Again, thanks for thinking of me.” You can also try using, Ed Gandia’s “yes, and” response. According to Ed, this is a “powerful jiu-jitsu move… you can use to avoid giving the impression that you’re willing to say yes to everything.” 

Realize sometimes you’ll have to disappoint people

When you're evaluating opportunities, understand people may try to argue with you about why you should change your mind or give an opportunity a chance. It can be tough to deal with, especially when you want to please everyone. But that’s not realistic. Or, as Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, “Make your peace with the fact that saying ‘no’ often requires trading popularity for respect.”

Identify your priorities and set some boundaries

When you have a hundred details crying for attention, getting clarity on your most pressing matters makes a huge difference. Once you decide what your priorities are, it's easier to turn down requests that don't align with your goals. Communicate these boundaries to friends, co-workers, family members, neighbors, and your spouse.

Remember you are the guardian of your time and energy

If you find yourself taking on too much, adjust your outlook. It’s OK to put your priorities ahead of others without feeling guilty. If you’re pressed for time, don’t keep adding more stuff to your plate. We all get the same number of hours each day but you are responsible for how you choose to use them. When you’re looking to prioritize your time and energy, Russell Clayton, assistant professor of management at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida advises being “strategically selfish"

It’s OK to feel guilt-free about safeguarding your time and attention

“No” is a complete sentence. You don't have to make excuses for saying "no" and you shouldn't feel guilty when you're unable to accommodate someone. In fact, as design studio founder and freelancer Lindsey Morgan observes, “Saying ‘No” is a form of self-care.” 

Don’t fill your calendar with urgent tasks at the expense of essential tasks

No matter how much time you have, you always seem to fill it with “urgent” tasks. The urgent creeps in and takes the place of your true priorities. Be purposeful and focus on your most important goals — prioritizing essential activities over urgent distractions when deciding whether to do something. In many cases, a lack of time is actually a lack of priorities.

Should you say “yes” or “no?”

Even armed with these tips, you’ll probably still face some difficult choices. One way of solving this problem is by following entrepreneur and author Derek Sivers’ rule of thumb. “If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say no. When deciding whether to do something, if you feel anything less than “Wow! That would be amazing! Absolutely! Hell yeah!” — then say no.”

Just starting out? Say “yes” to everything. Once you have some success: if it’s not a “hell, yes!” it’s a “no.” 

How many tools does it take to manage your freelance business? Just one.

Balancing opportunities, commitments, work, and your personal life may seem like a tall order, but it is possible.

And trust me when I tell you I know firsthand when you’re dealing with multiple projects at once, things can get complicated—fast. It’s difficult to know what to do next, and important details can slip between the cracks. Except now there’s an easier way to keep your projects under control.


With Moxie, you can stay on top of all your freelance work — in one place, which helps you keep an eye on the big picture. And according to Dr. Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist turned writer and author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit, "To overcome a pattern of spending all day 'chasing cows,' you can outsource, automate, batch small tasks, eliminate tasks, streamline your workflow, or create templates for recurring tasks."

Moxie is a single place to get in control of and stay on top of all your work (Plus, some really great content to help you reach your freelance goals and live your best #bosslesslife). For freelancers who understand time is valuable, Moxie gives you the tools you need to finally work where you want, when you want. When you join Moxie, you get access to:

  • Accounting
  • Time tracking 
  • Invoicing
  • Written agreements (proposals, contracts, and quotes)
  • Project management 
  • Sales pipeline
  • Client management 
  • Meeting scheduler
  • Business phone line

Any one of those bullet points can really help your freelance business, and you can get them all by joining Moxie.

Yep, that’s right. For less than it costs to fill up your car, you can manage your workload, watch over your money, and create, send, and store forms, discovery, proposals, and more.

Whether you need help managing client relationships, accepting online payments, or tracking your revenue and expenses, Moxie was built to help you.

Do you know someone who would love Moxie? Tell them to sign up here.

Looking ahead


It's a small word that makes a big difference.

While freelancing has always been a way to gain more flexibility and control over how you work, it’s more important than ever to make sure you're intentional about how you’re allocating time.

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but building a successful freelance business is mostly the result of the choices we make. Not only the things we choose to say "yes" to, but also the things we choose, either by omission or on purpose, to say "no" to. You don’t want to burn out, so you need to take care of yourself. And a big part of that includes knowing when to say “no” when asked to help someone.

The freelance life is all about freedom – the power to decide for yourself with whom, on what, and even when and where you want to work. To fully enjoy that freedom, every freelancer should accept that sometimes, saying "no" is the best decision. When your to-do lists, emails and requests are piling up with no end in sight, sometimes you have to make tough choices while keeping the bigger picture in mind.

Learning to identify what really matters to you and stopping and thinking before deciding "yes" or "no" is one of the most important lessons I've learned. And I suggest you do the same. As entrepreneur and marketer Ryan Robinson reminds us, "As an entrepreneur, you need to learn how to say no. In fact, if you want to be successful, you need to learn how to say no to almost everything that comes your way. With success and fame, will come an incredible influx of people placing requests and demands on your time -- which is without a doubt your most valuable resource."

Learn more about Moxie, a single digital workspace with all the tools needed to start, manage and grow a freelancing business...anytime and anywhere or view the guide “Freedom to freelance” here to learn how to run your freelance business from your phone.

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Anthony Sills
Anthony Sills
Anthony Sills is the Founder & Content Strategist at Professional Pen. He helps SasS and tech companies create marketing content that measurably attracts more customers using proven strategies, tactics, and frameworks.
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