I, like most women today, am incredibly busy.
I have a toddler and a baby. I run a podcast and write books. I run a small business providing content writing for companies. Somewhere in there, I also try to squeeze in time for date nights with my husband, exercise, and some actual leisure. But it gets harder and harder to find whitespace.
As we start 2019, one of my main goals is to create more of that magical “wiggle room” in my calendar that allows time for lazy Saturday mornings with my family or spontaneous weekend road trips. But in order to carve out time for these life-giving opportunities, it means saying “no.”
In fact, it means saying “no” a lot—particularly at work.
Almost every day, there’s someone in my inbox making a request. They do this out of kindness and an honest desire to collaborate. I love when I’m able to say “yes,” but more often than I’d like, I find myself needing to say “no.” Sometimes it’s because I have a concrete event on the calendar that conflicts; at those times, the “no” comes easily. But other times, it simply doesn’t align with my current goals. I know that the night before the task is due or the event occurs, I would be wishing I didn’t have to do it.
That resentment will come, not because I don’t want to do the task or event, but because I’ll be missing out on other meaningful things in my life. Those meaningful things—like movie nights at home with my husband, Sunday mornings with my kids, or early morning workout sessions are the moments that actually make up my life—not the hustle and bustle of running from one thing to the next.
But saying “no” feels awful, sometimes. It’s been helpful for me to remember that every “no” is also a “yes.” I’m going to let someone down, and to be heartbreakingly honest, I’d rather have it be that friend at church or professional contact than my kids.
I’ve learned that the pain I feel when saying “no” is not “a deep heart wound, but probably more a small professional disappointment,” as Shauna Niequist writes in Present Over Perfect. “[T]here’s a difference between forsaking a friendship or family relationship and speaking the truth about our limitations,” Niequist continues. “I’m finding that many of our friendships actually grow when we’re more honest about what we can and can’t do.”
If saying “no” to the extras in your life—another freelance assignment, being the classroom mom, helping a friend with a volunteer project—feels hard for you, I have good news: You don’t have to. There are other things you can say instead that carry the same message but soften the blow and are still useful.
01. “I can’t do that, but I could do this instead!”
In a professional setting, I’ve found this phrase to be incredibly helpful. When I was recently asked to become a regular contributor to a blog, I had to decline, since writing is my primary income source and I need to keep room for paying jobs in order to support my family. But I offered to write one single guest post instead in order to help the blog grow their traffic, since the writers of that particular blog have a great mission and have helped me in the past. I was still able to serve them while not committing to something that would be too much. I also volunteer to speak over Skype instead of attending events in-person since travel is so hard on my family right now. What could you offer to do instead of what the person is asking that would work for both of you?
02. “I can’t do that right now.”
Maybe an opportunity pops up that sounds amazing, but just can’t be taken on in this season. This also often comes up in social settings. It may be a hard month for me to squeeze in a coffee date, but a promise to reach back out in a few weeks can make all the difference and help the friend from having hurt feelings.
03. “I’m making a conscious effort to limit my calendar.”
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the power of just explaining this to people. You’d be amazed at how gracious others can be when you simply explain that you’re feeling overwhelmed with your schedule and are trying to learn to keep whitespace in it. If this is one of your new year’s goals, you can even tie it in seasonally: “I’m trying so hard to keep 2019 a bit more relaxing than 2018.”
04. "Here’s someone else I think would be great at that.”
I now get more client inquiries than I can handle in my small business. But I remember when I was just starting out and was desperate for clients. I love that I’m now in the position where I can pass potential clients off to other talented writers. I can help a newer writer with her business and help the client find someone to service them, while preserving the time I need in my schedule. It’s a win-win-win. If someone asks you to take on a task you can’t handle, think of who else would be perfect for it, and perhaps even consider volunteering to connect the potential client.
We can create whitespace on our calendars without burning bridges. It’s easier to believe that a “no” is really a “yes” to something else when we actually communicate our no’s that way. So give it try, Instead of a yes you can’t manage or a “no” that hurts feelings, consider using one of these options instead.