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Exercise: How To Say No Like A Stoic

How often do you say yes when you really want to say no?

Yes to invites. Yes to work proposals. Yes to favour requests.

Whatever the “ask” is, agreeing when we’d rather not is a common thing. 

There can be many reasons for doing it but most of them come down to some kind of fear: fear of missing out, fear of letting someone down, fear of making the wrong decision, fear of being the only one to say no.

It might seem harmless at first, yes instead of no, but those three letters instead of the alternative two can have miserable consequences.

“Most of us have lives filled with mediocrity,” writes Derek Sivers in his book, Hell Yeah or No. “We said yes to things that we felt half-hearted about.”

The solution is obvious: say yes less. The formula is simple: if you’re overwhelmed and not feeling “Hell yeah, that would be awesome!” about something, say no. 

But obvious and simple aren’t always easy.

How To Say No

Flat refusal might seem contrary to the Stoic notion of working for the common good. We can’t just say “I don’t feel like it” if someone desperately needs help, for example. That’s where the Stoic virtues come in.

Saying no requires all four of them:

  • Self-discipline because we need to hold firm against the indulgence of doing something only due to the fear of missing out.
  • Courage because we need to face that fear.
  • Justice because saying yes to something we don’t want to do would be unfair to others who are wholly committed to it.
  • Wisdom to know when a request simply can’t be turned down.

The straightforward wisdom we can apply comes from Marcus Aurelius (Meditations 6.2): “Just that you do the right thing, the rest doesn’t matter.

If we can’t say no to those things we feel half-hearted about we become slaves to calendars, to invites, to people who know we’ll say yes and are happy to exploit that fact.

Saying no with confidence and not worrying about being disliked for it is freedom. Knowing it’s the right thing to do, knowing it’ll give us space to concentrate on the things we feel full-hearted about, is freedom.

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Exercise: How To Say No Like A Stoic

As with anything we want to get better at, saying no requires preparation and practice.

Preparation

  1. Make a list of the requests you often receive as well as the regular obligations you’re already committed to.
  2. Of the non-essential commitments you currently have, ask yourself: “Given the choice over again, would I accept this commitment?” Use the “Hell Yeah or No” formula.
  3. For each commitment you would drop, write down what fears stopped you from saying no. This will help you gain a better understanding of those fears and enable you to face them when future requests are received.

Practice

  1. Practice saying no. It may sound bizarre to practice something so simple but when we’re put on the spot with a request, when we’re caught off-guard, we tend to think saying no will sound rude and for that reason just say yes.
  2. To practice, come up with some polite go-to responses you can use when a request doesn’t excite you. Here are some examples:

    “No, sorry, I’m not available.”
    “No, sorry, I can’t make it.”
    “No, sorry, that sounds great but I’d rather not.”
    “No, I’m going to wait and see.”
    “No, I don’t like that idea.”
    “No, but thanks for offering –I appreciate it.”
    “No, I don’t have the time right now.”
    “No, I’m refusing all requests of that type currently.”
    “No, I don’t need that—I’m going to work with what I have.”
    “No, because if I said yes to you, I’d have to say yes to everyone.”
  3. Finally, when those next requests start coming in, remember to ask yourself with each one: “Is this necessary?”
    Think carefully about what is being asked of you, what you’ll be using some of your finite supply of time for. 
    Say no to the things that don’t matter so you can say a resounding yes to the things that do.