It's been several decades since Americans were first introduced to the idea that they should "Just say no." While the context of this was originally about saying no to drugs, I believe this recommendation has even greater potential for those of us looking to simplify our lives in one way or another. In my ongoing effort to simplify my life, I have found that there are two general categories to which I offer a steadfast and gracious "no" when I can: nonessential external demands and unproductive internal beliefs.

It is important to emphasize that saying no is not negative or selfish or uncaring. Instead, saying no to one thing is equivalent to saying yes to what is more important to you. As such, the clearer you are about what is most important in your life, the clearer you will be about your rationale for refusing to say yes to what doesn't align with your priorities.

We are all familiar with the typical external demands that can contribute to our sense of being overwhelmed or overextended. It can be an impact on our time, like working longer hours and bringing work home, or it might take the form of supporting and attending an event outside of work that you wouldn't have gone to if given the choice.These external demands can also be subtle additions that distract you from focusing on what you find most rewarding and purposeful. Perhaps you are "rewarded" for your successes at work by being brought in on different projects or committees, or perhaps you are given the hardest of the work because you are so effective and are believed to be capable of handling it better than anyone else.

Are there some things we just can't say no to without undesirable repercussions? Absolutely. However, I propose that there are more things you can say no to than you realize. One useful question for whomever is making a request or demand of you is, "I am happy to do this, but what should I stop working on at the moment so I can give my time to this?" If offered with sincerity, this question can begin a dialogue about prioritization and demonstrate that when you agree to do something, you will do so with the needed focus and attention.

In addition to these external demands, I try to be aware of and respond skillfully to any unproductive internal beliefs that might unnecessarily drain my energy and resources.This is easier said than done, of course, but is helped by cultivating a mindful awareness of what's going on in my head at any given moment.

If you're experience is anything like mine, you may find it helpful to consider saying no to some of the following ideas and beliefs that don't contribute to your happiness or wellbeing:

  • Say no to perfectionism
  • Say no to accepting less than what you need and deserve from others
  • Say no to judgement
  • Say no to rumination and regret
  • Say no to guilt
  • Say no to clinging to what is familiar but doesn't give you joy
  • Say no to negative self-talk
  • Say no to limiting beliefs about what you can and can't do
  • Say no to martyrdom
  • Say no rejecting the present in favor of an idealized future
  • Say no to impostor syndrome
  • Say no to living the life others envision for you instead of the one you want yourself

Saying no to these ideas (and others like them) is saying yes to being more authentic, empowered, and effective in all aspects of your life. Once you begin to simplify your life in this way, the effect becomes self-sustaining. Having more mental "bandwidth" being channeled from unproductive internal beliefs into self-confidence and self-efficacy will support your effectiveness, focus, and sense of purpose in your work and life. This will, in turn, support your ability to say no to all of the ideas listed above and more. All because you chose to say yes to what is most important to you.


Kristin McKeown is a nationally award-winning teacher librarian passionate about bringing mindfulness and meditation to educators. Through her site, Kristin provides wellness and stress-management tools to support individuals so that they can better support others.

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