Overwhelmed? Just Say ‘No.’

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Written By Pinang Driod

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If you feel you are struggling to stay on top of things and are worried about organizing your time and being productive, the internet offers hundreds of aids and techniques such as virtual assistants and apps that make to-do lists. But if you find yourself more and more distracted and harried, struggling to pay attention to what really matters and baffled by how whole days seem to simply disappear, you might be missing the single most effective way to free up time and focus attention: saying no more to all the demands bombarding you.

This is more than just a way to increase your productivity. Psychologists have shown that the feeling of being harried and having insufficient time because of busyness is linked to less happiness. Almost everyone knows the sensation that comes when commitments pile up and deadlines bear down. A seemingly innocuous yes to a request is just one more thing added to the pile already weighing on you and making it impossible to pay attention to what you really want or need. The strategic use of no can truly change your quality of life.

But using it isn’t easy, especially for certain people—including you, perhaps. Saying no might feel practically violent. Fortunately, you can get a lot better at it, and reap the benefits of a happier life spent more on your own priorities.

Saying no too little—and thus yes too much—has always been a problem for me, especially if someone is asking me to do something new. I am highly motivated by novel experiences and adventures, and if you ask me to do something I’ve never done before, my brain’s locus coeruleus will spray dopamine onto my dorsal hippocampus like a fire hose. “Yes,” I will say, my heart racing, “I would love to talk about happiness while making balloon animals at your granddaughter’s birthday party in Fairbanks!” Later, I may regret it. (No offense to your lovely granddaughter.)

My problem is twofold. The first is not valuing the future properly compared with the present. Economists and psychologists have long studied the phenomenon of discounting, according to which we value something right now more highly than we value the idea of having the same item in, say, a year’s time. This is one of the reasons we demand interest on money we put away in a savings account, and also why lottery winners will accept a lower lump-sum payout today over staggered payments that will amount to a larger sum in the future.

A bit of such discounting won’t wreck my decision making and mess up my life, but many people suffer from a common bias called “hyperbolic discounting,” which, as the name suggests, is the same phenomenon but to an extreme degree. This explains addictive behaviors, in which the likelihood of future damage—from drug use, for example—is ignored in favor of the momentary present pleasure. Hyperbolic discounting also can help explain my habitually saying yes to some upcoming task: Future inconvenience is overlooked in favor of the joy available right now of saying you will take it on.

The second problem is the fear of future regret. Humans have astonishing mental time-travel abilities. We are able to imagine ourselves in a future state, feeling chagrin for a decision we’re making right now—which in turn affects that decision. Researchers have shown that this concern can lead to risk avoidance.

For example, you might consider buying a house in the current, highly uncertain housing market: You really want the house but envision yourself in a few years, having bought right at the top of the market, just before a real-estate bubble bursts; then you imagine yourself struggling with the equity in your home being worth less than the value of your mortgage. So you rent for another year, then another, and so on. Risk avoidance can therefore inhibit you from saying yes to something important: owning your own home and the long-term prospect of building equity in it. As the author Daniel Pink notes in his book The Power of Regret (which I have mentioned before), a common source of regret is inaction: saying no when a yes might have led to something wonderful.

But the fear of future regret can also lead you to say yes to too many things if you’re worried about missing an opportunity. For neophiliacs like me, you never know when you will find the next amazing thing, so saying no always feels like a big potential missed opportunity.

Perhaps neither hyperbolic discounting nor regret phobia haunt you, but you still say yes too much. In that case, the problem may be that you easily fall prey to a sense of obligation or guilt. This is not necessarily a character flaw; it may simply be the cost of being a kind person. But saying yes can be costly indeed if people around you know they can ask you nearly anything and you’ll accede.

If that describes you, you urgently need to know about a recent body of research: Scholars have devised experiments to show that those who struggle to turn down requests from others typically overestimate the negative consequences of turning them down. In other words, your colleague will be less put out than you expect if you say no to helping with her project. You just have to get the knack for saying no instead of yes.

Whether you are a faulty-discounter, a regret-fearer, or a guilt-feeler, you need tools to help you manage your yes bias. Here are three that many people have found effective.

1. Start a No Club.
In 2022, four scientists shared with one another their discomfort about their overstuffed schedules and overwhelming correspondence, much of which was due to their own poor discipline in failing to refuse professional tasks and opportunities, such as going to conferences and reviewing articles for scholarly journals. Knowing that individually they would probably lack the willpower to improve, they pledged to one another to start saying no to large and small requests. By disclosing these decisions to the group, they found a way to make themselves accountable. They even started a little challenge to see how soon they could collectively chalk up 100 work-related nos. You might want to start your own No Club.

2. Make no easier.
You may have noticed that you are constantly being added to email spam lists; to get off them, you have to scroll to the bottom of a message and search for a tiny link that says “unsubscribe.” That’s called an opt-out approach to complying with the law that requires the sender to give the receiver the means to get off the email list. Marketers obviously like that approach much better than the opt-in one by which you continue to get the emails only if you click a link saying, in effect, “I love your spam; please keep clogging up my inbox.” We all find it much easier and faster to delete an email than to opt out, so the mail keeps coming—if only with your implicit permission.

But when it comes to saying yes or no, you can make this behavioral principle work for you by framing any decision about whether to take on a new task as opting in instead of opting out. So when someone asks you to do something, your default response should be a no, never a yes. If you can internalize this practice, you make no the easier decision.

3. Make yes harder.
Along with making no easier, you can also make saying yes harder. This is, in fact, how my colleagues have saved me from myself. My organization has put a set of steps in place before I say yes to anything; these involve both the time and the judgment of others. Waiting a day at least, or even a week, helps get me out of my dopamine-saturated hot yes-state. Then, when a colleague reminds me that the Fairbanks birthday party is the same week as the Miami bar mitzvah I already agreed to, my discounting becomes less hyperbolic. You can institute your own decision-making process; just make sure that getting to a yes involves plenty of friction.

One last thing to keep in mind, if you are feeling pecked to death by constant requests: It might not be you; it could be them. If a particular person in your life is constantly asking you for favors, consider that researchers have demonstrated that two common characteristics of people with narcissistic personality disorder are exploitativeness and entitlement. They are exploitative because they believe that if you’re willing to be taken advantage of, that’s your problem. They’re entitled because they think they deserve whatever they are asking for.

If this sounds like your situation, the easiest way to reduce the problem is not by perfecting techniques to say no more, but simply by avoiding this person to the extent that you can. If they won’t take no for an answer, just try not to let them ask the question. Succeeding at this will certainly raise your happiness, and you might find that, in reality, you have no no problem at all.

Arthur Brooks is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the host of the How to Build a Happy Life podcast.

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