Saying “no”

One of the reasons people frequently claim that their home lives are in disarray and extremely stressful is because they are never home. They would get to the mess in their garages if they just had more time or they would go through their stacks of mail if there were more hours in the day.

If the person is currently the primary caregiver for a sick child, parent, or spouse, I can see his or her point of view. That person is needed in a life-sustaining way and uncluttering the garage may really be an impossible task.

In the majority of cases, however, the “never home” and “not enough time” claims are just excuses. The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough time in a day, the problem is that they can’t say “no.”

Do you really need to be on five civic committees? Does your child have to be involved in every after school enrichment activity? Is there another job out there that is as fulfilling and financially rewarding as your current job, but without the insane work hours or horrendous commute?

Serving on one civic committee allows you to focus your time and efforts more effectively. One music lesson, one team sport, and valuable time with the family will be more rewarding for your child than endless after school activities that reduce family time. Changing jobs to improve your work-life balance is a worthwhile endeavor, especially when it means that you get to keep your sanity and happiness intact.

There are respectful ways to say “no” and then there are disrespectful ways. Obviously, I’m suggesting respectful, thoughtful, considerate ways of expressing regret:

  • I really appreciate the offer to chair X committee at church, but I wouldn’t be able to devote the time and level of interest that you’re seeking to do an effective, mindful job. At this time, I will have to decline.
  • Sally enjoyed being a Girl Scout last year, but this year she has decided to go out for the basketball team instead.
  • I realize that this sounds like passing the buck, and in a sense it is, but have you talked yet to Brian about his interest in project X? He and I had a discussion a few weeks ago about how he is looking to get more involved with your division and this might be a good way for him to learn more about your work.

Living a busy life can give us the sense of being needed and popular. Eventually, though, being the one to always say “yes” can become exhausting and stressful. Never being home in a relaxed state denies you the ability to re-energize and recuperate. Your home life will remain a mess until you take the time to be at home and give it proper attention. Learning to say “no” respectfully and in appropriate situations will help to put things back on track.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

22 Comments for “Saying “no””

  1. posted by Dragynox on

    I think that it may have more to do with priorities than not being able to say no. For a lot of people, having a cluttered garage doens’t cause a lot stress, so uncluttering it isn’t a very high priority. Since they’re not uncluttering their garage, they can go out and do other stuff instead of being home.

    My parents for instance have about zero stress in their lives from their cluttered garage, so they don’t plan on doing anything about it. Mine causes me some stress, so I’ve been making charts and plans to make a system for it.

    I just think that readers here often forget that we are stressed unusually high by clutter and project that too much on others.

  2. posted by Mary on

    I agree that it is a matter of priorities. For years, my car was an extreme mess while I juggled a job, a full load in engineering school and single parenting 4 children. The clutter drove me nuts but supporting my family and earning my degree were essential and consumed all my time. Now, as an empty nester with more time and money, I find that I enjoy clean and neat surroundings. I can make this a priority but it’s still not my top priority. I tend to focus on finding ways to create less work as I slowly but surely declutter my home and car. I’m also working on finding balance – that’s why I loved the post here about the messy sock drawer.

  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Dragynox and Mary — I agree that it is about priorities. My claim is that a person’s home life, their sanctuary away from the stresses of the world, should be a priority. It’s not THE only priority, but it’s definitely high on the list. If something at home is stressing you out, then you will find ways not to go home … which is a shame since we need time to relax and recuperate and re-energize from demands on us outside our home (like graduate school, etc.).

  4. posted by Lolo on

    There are certain after-school activities that, if your child is showing promise, they have to engage in multiple times a week. For example, dance lessons, after a certain age, should happen at least 4-5 times a week.

    I’m not saying that to be a jerk, but there are certain activities that can’t be prioritized away. Sure, at this point, you wouldn’t want your child to also be engaged in several other activities, but the combination of school and a very time intensive activity can be a very large commitment in themselves.

    Anyway, the point is that I’d never refuse a child the opportunity to pursue something they were actually that committed to just so I could stay home and clean.

  5. posted by teri on

    limiting involvement in committees and afterschool activities increases the chances of having dinner as a family. many experts agree that the best way to keep your child out of trouble is to have dinner together every day and spend time together as a family. spending time together does not mean mom sitting on the sidelines while johnny plays soccer. it means everyone involved in the same activity. it can be something as mundane as cleaning out the garage.
    at the beginning of the school year, we sit down with the boys to discuss afterschool activities. we write down the schedule of everything they *want* to do. we include time for homework, chores, meals, etc. then we help them pare down the list to a reasonable schedule. yep, they sometimes have to “miss out” on an activity. they are learning to make choices. this year, they wanted to devote more time to taekwondo. i said that would be fine, but something else would have to go. they decided to give up Odyssey of the Mind, which they had thoroughly enjoyed previously. it was a hard choice, but a wise one. they have agreed that doing OM this year would have made our lives insane.
    they want to add another type of martial arts class. we agreed to keep track of how that additional class would impact our daily life. for a few weeks, we are marking on the calendar how many days it would be a struggle if they were attending that class.
    oh…and when we make out schedules, we always include some downtime. we all need time to relax and let our minds wander. it is also good to have a little buffer for when unexpected things pop up.

  6. posted by Juliann on

    Our household consists of me (a disabled person whose mobility is limited) and my husband, who works full time as well as being my carer. Our dwelling looks as though a tornado has gone through it but we simply cannot find time and energy to do much about it. In our case, it’s too low a priority compared to just staying alive and somewhat sane. But that said, we’d love to know if there are any strategies for say, having a huge amount of stuff within reach of the bed but keeping it organized and tidy. I find there is just too much stuff that I need to access on days when I am bedbound and it is more than I can find homes for in the limited area beside the bed.

  7. posted by Michele on

    I think this post makes a great point. Whenever I am decluttering or organizing, I make it a point to diagnose the cause of my clutter and more often than not, it is lack of time.

  8. posted by Andrew Conard on

    Erin – Thanks for sharing this post. You make a great and convicting point.

  9. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Lolo — If your child is the next Tiger Woods, then by all means, let the kid play golf! If you’re raising a Venus Williams, let her play tennis! Life is about choices, and it sounds like your daughter has made a choice to be a ballerina. That’s exactly my point in the article. Now, if she were also enrolled in violin, piano, church choir, gymnastics, karate, cotillion, and soccer … then there would be an opportunity to say “no” to some of those things.

  10. posted by Lois on

    Posts like this make me even more anxious about prioritizing! My husband’s clutter is overwhelming, and clearing it out (with or without him) is so time-consuming yet it’s critical it gets done (think mold, etc., building up under this mess). However, I do nearly completely schedule all of my kindergartner’s free time, and juggling this with my own at-home business (tax accountant) is overwhelming in and of itself. My son has a mild autism diagnosis but has truly overcome most of his early developmental delays. I believe it really helps him to be in structured activities where he can interact with other kids, and that’s why we have him in music, dance, martial arts, etc. — not just to keep him busy. So advice to “just say no” — just doesn’t work for me.

  11. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I wrote a post about Quitting to be Successful

    I believe that saying NO is just saying YES to something else!

  12. posted by PJ Doland on

    @teri — What, may I ask, is “Odyssey of the Mind?”

    The name makes it sounds like some kind of new age cult?

  13. posted by cendare on

    (not @teri, but I know this one! 🙂 Odyssey of the Mind, aka OM, aka Olympics of the Mind before the International Olympic Committee got all huffy about it, is a creativity competition that’s been going on for at least 25 years. Kids get together and write skits, build balsa-wood structures with certain specifications, etc. It’s fun, if the idea of “competitive creativity” doesn’t seem too weird.

  14. posted by Michele on

    I often hear, “I don’t have time to do X, Y, or Z” from people who seem to have enough time to keep up with “American Idol” or “House” or “Lost” or some other TV programs. Or people who surf the Internet for hours, rather than efficiently checking their mail and then moving on to other tasks.

    I think it’s not just about prioritizing your commitments, but also about prioritizing what you do with your downtime. I’ve wasted my share of hours on the Internet, I guess, but I’m at the point now where I simply cannot sit and veg in front of the TV. I absolutely have to be accomplishing something else, like doing housework.

  15. posted by Lady S on

    I could certainly spend more time cleaning or organizing, but I don’t. But that’s not why I am commenting.

    I am on several groups and committees. I enjoy being on these committees, but I am not very good with follow through. I have started saying, when there is a lull and no one is volunteering for a job…”I am not going to commit to do that, because I know I won’t do it.” I do plenty of other things, and the people in these groups know that. Several people have told me they wish they were brave enough to say that.

    I am learning to say “no” to more things. I just wish I could say “yes” to throwing things away and doing without more.

  16. posted by Geralin Thomas on

    This email was sent to me and is relevant to today’s post on “Just Say No!” and Time Management.

    “I’ve benefited from an post I saw on The article is from the Fine Living website: , If you type in “How to Say No” the article will come up. I printed it and taped it next to my phone. It really works. A lot of articles tell us to say no, my problem was I didn’t know HOW to say no, nicely. This article taught me HOW to say no. It works for me. Thanks.”

    Maybe this is part of the dilemma; knowing how to say no is challenging for many. Hopefully this will inspire someone else too.

  17. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Geralin — Great post, too! I hadn’t seen yours. I really like your suggestions for considerate ways of saying “no.” 🙂

  18. posted by RED on

    Here’s another way of looking at it … I find that I say “yes” to things to get me out of the house when it’s cluttered (or even find reasons to run errands, go to library to read, etc.). So … sometimes the cluttered house is the cause of WANTING to be on the go so much … to get away from the clutter and the anxiety it brings.

    Rather, spend 5 min. a day on one area culling things that aren’t needed. Pretty soon (no, not immediately! … in a month or more) your home will be your haven. Then you will enjoy being there … having friends over spur of the moment, etc.

    To change the subject slightly … I have no children but do observe in friends and neighbors who do … the draw to the sports/other activities for children seems to be the parents’ need to socialize and be “out there” and less interest in the children’s growth. In one case I can think of it’s an unhappy marriage that can be “forgotten about” because there’s so much rushing around to the practices and games. Just some food for thought. Activities as clutter are often to mask another issue, aren’t they?

  19. posted by catmom on

    It’s a year later, but I can still comment. People do need to learn that it’s okay to say no without sounding rude. For adults, while it’s great to do things other than just work, don’t get so many things on your plate that it gets overwhelming.

    I’ve learned over the years not to overschedule, especially on the weekends. For those who like to cram as much as they can into their weekends, more power to you. That’s just not me, I have to have time to keep up the house and do errands. Plus I need some downtime.

    If I do happen to have a weekend where there’s something happening on both Sat. and Sun. (and taking up most the day), I like to have the following weekend “off”, by not having anything going on: no getting together with anyone, no day trips, no nothing!

    I agree with you Teri on the children’s activities. I have no children, but if I did, your way sound like a good idea. You sound like a great mom!

  20. posted by Dorothy on

    If you’re asked to do something you don’t want to do, you don’t need to make an excuse. “No,” is a complete sentence.

  21. posted by Pat on

    You can also say, “Let me think about it.” This is good for several reasons. It actually gives you time to think about whether or not it is something you want to take on. It gives you time to figure out how to decline graciously. The other person does not feel that you rejected an idea out of hand.

  22. posted by G. on

    As Dorothy says, “no” is a complete sentence. There are those who take any reason for declining as a personal challenge to get you to change your answer. Especially when they are asking you to do something that’s your hobby already, like sewing.

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