Today, we are continually pulled in many different directions. The firestorm of technology-induced interruptions challenge our priorities and disrupt our focus. But that’s only half the problem. The other side, the darker side, is our increasing inability to say no. “No” has been bred out of us. We now must answer in the positive, offer an alternative, never say we can’t without offering what we can. Unfortunately, this leads us to make promises we aren’t able to fulfil. And when we try—because let’s face it, we’re nothing if not overachievers—we create undue stress and anxiety and the time we originally were going to spend relaxing is now consumed with our attempts to fulfil the promise we should’ve just said “no” to in the first place.

Skilled HR leaders, as well as savvy business leaders, know the importance of stakeholder management: managing the expectations of people who have an impact and a vested interest in our projects and teams. But with so many competing priorities and the myriad of projects we lead, how do we make better decisions and learn to say “no” when we need to, so that when we do say “yes”, we mean it?

I can tell you from experience, it’s not easy and requires practice.

  1. But the first step is awareness. Simply being aware when you’re overcommitting is key. Are you always late? Living in a perpetual harried state? Are you constantly “snoozing” your reminders? Then chances are you’re overcommitting and need to get better at saying “no”.
  2. Derek Sivers, a popular blogger, once said, "It’s either hell yes or no." And that’s a motto I try to live by. And when I have this mindset and use it as a criterion for my decision making, I find that I not only make faster decisions, I also make better ones.
  3. If you are unsure whether you can deliver on a commitment, call it early by saying "no." Sure, you can manage expectations by being "tentative" but remember that being tentative will ultimately require a follow-up.
  4. Cut the noise. Often, we get lost in a whirlwind of invites and allow people to thrust upon us the need to make a decision about things that don’t really matter. This can include invites to meetings or functions or parties that are irrelevant to what we’re trying to achieve—professionally as well as personally. Of course, some would say courtesy dictates we should respond to everything and if we say must say “no”, we have to provide a reason. But, do we really need to? I actually adopt the same approach with email. It saves me tons of time and I don't return from a holiday wading through hundreds of messages for which I’m only on “copy”.
  5. Another tactic I use that has become a part of my decision-making criteria is to honour commitments in the order they come. This allows me to stay focused and prevents me from overcommitting. It also helps me to be certain about the things I say “yes” to—knowing that a yes to one assignment prevents me from saying yes to another. As always, there is a caveat, and that is if something arises that’s truly interesting and aligned with my passions, then I accept it—with the understanding that this is the exception, not the rule. It means for a short period of time, I knowingly accept that I will have a lot on, which is okay, for the things I’m most passionate about.

Learning to say “no” confidently so that you can say “yes” and mean it is a good tactic to deal with the countless decisions you have to make in life. We are entering an era of decision fatigue and it's only going to worsen. Saying yes and no decisively will not only help you manage your day-to-day life better, but it will also show stakeholders that you’re in control—because you will be.