For many of us, it just feels more natural to say yes. We understand the importance of saying yes, but we don’t always grasp why saying no is important to our careers.
Especially early in our careers, it’s hard to turn down any opportunity that comes our way. This is even more true if that opportunity comes in the form of a request from someone higher up in the management chain.
Want to know a dirty little secret of the business world? You have the ability and the right to say no. Sometimes you may even have a duty — to yourself or to the company — to say no.
This advice applies whether you are working for a corporation or a startup — or even if you are a freelancer or entrepreneur.
Here are a few of the most important reasons why saying no is important to your career.
#1: Say No Because Your Time is Limited
That’s right, we are starting with the most obvious and clichéd reason. You cannot possibly say yes to everything. When you agree to attend a meeting at 3 pm, you are implicitly saying no to every other meeting happening at 3 pm. You are also saying no to getting any other work done at 3 pm.
Let’s say that two of your co-workers are going to ask you to do a task for them this afternoon. You can only do one of those tasks, so you will inevitably have to say no to one of them. If you always say yes, you are that implicitly asserting that whichever task came to you first must be more important.
And that brings us to our next point: prioritization.
#2: Say No Because Only You Can Set Your Priorities
Nobody will look out for your career as well as you will. Your manager is looking out for their direct reports, themselves, and the company.
You can guess the order in which they prioritize those three entities. As a hint, their direct reports — you included — are not at the top. This same logic holds for your clients or whoever else is making requests of your time.
Even if we assume that everyone in your life has your best interest at heart, they don’t have enough information to prioritize your life for you. Only you know everything — or at least most of everything — that is going on in your little corner of the universe.
You can certainly ask people for input on how to prioritize the requests they give you, but they should only ever provide input, not a final decision. Other people may know more about the importance of a particular task, what stakeholders might be impacted, and who might take notice if the task is successful — but those are all just pieces of the puzzle.
Take all of these inputs and weigh them in light of your own goals. You may have worked out a series of goals with the company that your manager knows, but those are also just pieces of the puzzle. You would never, as an example, put your intention to get hired by a competitor on those stated goals.
That’s why you need to use your own private goals to prioritize all the requests you receive. You know you best, so you must be your own master.
#3: Say No Because People Need to Know That Your Time is Important
We constantly say yes to curry favor, out of a sense of duty, or sometimes just to be liked. It feels good to be the person that everyone comes to in their time of need.
What saying yes to everything really does, though, is just make us seem like pushovers who don’t value their own time. If you don’t value your time, why should anyone else?
This is the ultimate irony of saying yes to everything. We do it to feel valuable, but it just makes us look worthless.
Think of it this way. Your manager has a high-priority task. You are the person that says yes to everything, making your time appear to be worth nothing. Your co-worker instead only says no to high-priority tasks.
All else being equal, who will your manager ask to complete the task? Probably not you. But if they have a meaningless task, you are probably the first person on their mind. This is not who you want to be.
#4: Say No Because Burnout is Real
If you don’t learn to say no, you will get stuck with a full schedule of tasks that you did not choose. That is a recipe for burnout if I’ve ever seen one. People aren’t thinking of your psychological health when they ask you to complete tasks.
I’m not saying that people are doing this intentionally. Many people do genuinely care and will take an interest in your mental health. But we are all biased by what we know, and other people don’t know your internal state.
Sometimes saying no is the only way to stay above water, and those are the times when you owe it to yourself to do just that. You also owe it to yourself to take your own well-being into account when prioritizing tasks.
Prioritizing other people over your own well-being might seem like a selfless act, but it isn’t good for anyone in the long term. When your mental health suffers, you, your career, and everyone around you suffer with it. When saying no is important to your mental health, you owe it to everyone to do so.
If you were handing out food rations in a famine, you wouldn’t just say yes to every request that came our way. If you did, people certainly wouldn’t trust your ability to value and distribute such resources in the future.
Yet this is exactly how we treat our time. Our time is a limited resource, but we are stingier with compliments or Halloween candy than we are with our precious time!
So why is saying no important? Because your time is important.
Treat your time like the limited resource it is. Prioritize the requests you receive. Show others that your time is valuable. Protect your mental health.
Just learn to say no.