biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies: saying “no”

by Grace Bonney

It’s funny how topics and posts happen here at D*S. Sometimes they’re planned way ahead of time and sometimes they happen over the course of a few days. Other times, like this post, they seem to flow naturally, as if my brain had already written the words and my hands merely needed to transcribe them. Sometimes your body and mind decide together when it’s the right time to say something.

Most people who know me outside of D*S know that I’m someone who trusts my gut almost indiscriminately. If it feels wrong or if something just doesn’t sit right, I won’t do it. When I get into a rut of ignoring my gut, bad things happen and, while that’s not a good thing, it’s always a learning experience in the making.

For the first five or six years of running D*S I was the Queen of Yes. I said yes to every and any opportunity  that came across my (virtual) desk and it lead to some amazing experiences. But it also lead to some not so amazing experiences in and out of work. So over the last few years I’ve started to make some changes that have downgraded me from the Queen of Yes to, let’s say The Duchess of No (I haven’t quite mastered it enough to reach queen status). As scary as these changes have been, they’ve been shockingly easy and rewarding to make. Almost like the first push down a water slide- as soon as you’re past the scary part you wonder why you avoided doing something that could be so exciting, inspiring, fun and- ultimately- good for your health (Yes, I think theme parks are good for your health. My inner child agrees.)

For today’s Biz Ladies post I’m going to share my personal path to LEARNING TO SAY NO- along with the tips, tools and tricks I’m using to keep this way of thinking in place. I hope this can help anyone in need learn to better prioritize their time and choices to preserve the health of both their business and their lives. –Grace

The full post continues after the jump…

The Beginning

Early one morning in December of 2009 I found myself lying in bed with my heart pounding. At first it was just part of my face, but then I realized that large sections of my legs and arms felt numb. I knew I could speak and think clearly, so it wasn’t a stroke, but something was very, very wrong.

I woke Aaron up and told him that I thought I needed to go to the hospital. So we bundled up and walked the few blocks up 7th avenue to the hospital. When I finally saw a doctor, they couldn’t find anything wrong with me. They suggested that perhaps the numbness was a side effect of a migraine, but I didn’t feel like I had a headache. I’d also never gotten headaches for the previous 27 years of my life. But we went home, I took some migraine medication and tried to get some sleep.

A few weeks later when I was home with my family for Christmas it happened again. My parents called a family friend who knew a doctor on-call at the ER and my Dad and I went to have me checked out again on Christmas Eve. The doctor wrote down and discussed Multiple Sclerosis as a possible diagnosis so I spent the next few weeks living in fear and awaiting an MRI.

After several doctor’s visits and, thankfully, a clean MRI, no one could find anything wrong with me. But the symptoms persisted. So I took it upon myself to find a neurologist because I felt like I was either dying or going crazy- and one of those two options just hadn’t been caught by the right doctor.

The neurologist did some simple tests and then wrapped things up with some tension examinations. As he pushed on my muscles he stopped and said, “You are one of the most tense people I’ve ever met.” He concluded our visit by saying that all of my problems could be solved with exercise, relaxation and some time off. I was furious. I felt like I had a real medical condition and it was only a matter of time before someone caught the life-threatening illness that was lurking somewhere in my body.

It took me a full year to finally accept and realize that the real illness that was threatening my health and happiness was stress. I had been so neglectful of my personal life and personal health in favor of the (perceived) health of my business that I had created a level of tension in my body that was manifesting itself as migraines, numbness, anger and an intense amount of stress. That was the moment that I decided to start saying NO.

Overcoming Fears

The biggest fear most of us have with learning to say NO is that we will miss an opportunity. An opportunity that would have catapulted us to success, or that will never come again. And most of the time*, that simply isn’t true.

I’ve found that the first part of learning to say NO is learning to accept that offers and opportunities are merely an indication that you’re on the right path- not that you’ve arrived at a final destination you can never find again.

If someone is choosing YOU, it means you’re doing something right. And that is the biggest opportunity you can receive- the chance to recognize that your hard work is paying off. And if you continue to do good work, those opportunities will continue – and improve- over time.

If you don’t trust that, here’s something I like to do: Talk out or write out all the bad things you think will happen if you DON’T take an offer that comes your way. I’ve found 9 times out of 10 the things I’m worried about sound silly and unrealistic when I say them out loud. If that still doesn’t help, seek the advice of someone you trust. That person can be purely emotional support or they can be someone who understands that industry. I think it’s important to have both, but if nothing else, it helps to talk to someone else who has dealt with that field so they can tell you what sort of deal is common, uncommon, fair and unfair.

Here’s an example: a friend recently called me about a book deal she’d been offered. The opportunity was exciting, but the bottom line was that the offer wasn’t enough to make it worth her time. She didn’t know if she should just do it anyway or if she was asking too much. We were able to talk things out and I was able to share the experience I’d had to give her some perspective on the situation. Sometimes that simple back and forth can really help clarify things.

*However, if  Oprah comes calling, take the offer.

1. Keeping it Real(istic)

Before you try to make any major change, it’s important to keep two things in mind:

1. What stage of life and business are you in?

Are you just starting out? Are you 22 and FULL of energy and time and excitement? If so, you may still be in a place where saying YES more often is totally ok and, frankly, part of the learning process. I’m really glad I tried so many different things for the first few years of my business. It’s what gave me the experience and skills that I draw on every day. But after eight years I’m not the same person I was. I can’t- and don’t want to- stay up all night working for free. While I won’t rule situations like that out entirely (there’s got to be room for passion projects), it’s no longer the best choice for my personal and work life. But taking stock of where you are in your life and business is important. Someone who has three kids and has been working non-stop for 10 years is simply going to have different priorities than a 22-year old fresh out of college with no other life commitments. And that’s ok- each of those people and life stations has room to grow, learn and succeed.

2. This is not about being perfect.

You’re going to slip up and say YES to things that end up being draining or don’t work out the way you want. That’s ok- it’s part of the process and part of being human. This way of thinking is about learning to make changes slowly and to the best of your ability. Cut yourself some slack and accept that we all still make mistakes no matter how many positive changes we make or life experience we gain.

2. Making a Choice System

I hate overly-systematizing my life. It makes me feel like nothing is passionate or spontaneous or fun. But sometimes a little bit of a system can go a long way. So I’ve started asking myself questions to help me make choices when my gut feels a little unclear or is wavering.

Please note: this choice system is based on what’s important to ME. Everyone needs to prioritize according to what is most important to their life.

1. Am I excited about this?

  • Yes: Awesome! Move forward to the next step…
  • Nope: Life’s too short to pursue a project that doesn’t excite me in any way. So it’s a No.

2. Is this a good fit for who I am and what my business is about?

  • Yes: Rad. Time for the next step…
  • Nope: Is there room to negotiate so it is? Then consider the next step. If not, it’s time for a No.

3. Is this project going to give me a skill, financial gain or opportunity that is worth working for?

  • Yes? Move to the next step…
  • Nope? Time to bust out a NO.

4. Is it a balanced/equal partnership?

  • Yes: Perfect, you’re on your way to a new project!
  • No: Time to renegotiate. If you can’t, get out. You and your business deserve to be part of a project that fairly values what you have to bring to the table.

5. Are you willing to give something up to make room for this project?

  • Yes: Think about what that would be and how you would do it (and how that would effect your life and happiness)
  • No: Do you have to? If not, that’s ok. But if you do have to make time for this somewhere and you’re not willing to, you just can’t do it. It’s a No.

The next step after getting through these questions is to make sure the situation you’re in will turn out as closely as possible to the vision you have in your head. That means: get it in writing. So many projects end on a sour note because two parties think they’re on the same page and end up on different ones. The best way to prevent that is to get all of the situations you’ve assured above put into writing and signed by both parties. That way you can move forward as clearly as possible. Nothing’s worse than saying Yes! to a situation and having to say No later down the line because someone backed out of a promise they made.


3. Keep a Calendar of Commitments

This is a simple step I’ve failed to do for, well, ever. It wasn’t until I had other full-time team members to work with that I saw the importance of mapping out all that we wanted to do over the course of a year. Again, it goes back to me not wanting to feel pinned down by a schedule or system. That said, a lot of times we commit to things without really looking at how busy it will make us.

Even if you follow the steps/questions above and narrow down some of your project load, you’re going to end up saying yes to a lot of things. Those things need to be mapped out on a calendar.

Why? Because creativity needs time to breath and your brain needs time to rest and be inspired. Put all of your commitments in a calendar and then frequently check your schedule. Is your spring completely packed? Is your Fall empty? Juggle the schedule around so you have more time to work at a balanced pace. Make sure you leave room for breaks and vacations. Even if you don’t go anywhere- your brain needs a day (or a month) off every now and then.

Also, it’s important to remember that this way of thinking is about looking at things in the long-term. Your health (business and personal) is at its best when you give yourself room to work, think and breathe. If you don’t do a regular check-in on all the things you’ve committed to, it’s easy to suddenly look up and realize you’ve booked yourself solid for 12 months.

*I love Google calendars for this. I’m always checking the month-view so I can see what my work load looks like. I find it helpful to have anyone I work with keep one, too. Then we all share calendars- that way I know what their work-load looks like and know when to both give them space and when NOT to book something for myself if they’re not around to help.


4. Dealing with the Push Back

For me, being afraid to say NO had to do with being scared of people’s reactions. Would they hate me? Talk behind my back? Get mad and yell at me? Make me feel guilty?

Looking back, ALL of those things have already happened to me after saying NO to a project. But the reality is- 99% of the time, they don’t. Most people understand that everyone is busy and can’t say Yes to everything. If they’re kind people they’ll understand and leave you be. But it helps to have a response. Here’s how I learned to deal with what I called the Push Back:

Have a standard response: I have a canned response in Gmail (I love that program) I use for the basis of my No responses. Each one is just a template I use as a jumping off point. Having that in place is actually what leads me to respond to things in a more timely manner and in a more personalized way. I find seeing those words puts me in the right (polite) frame of mind to respond to requests and opportunities in a thoughtful, professional way. In general I find it’s great to:

  • Thank someone for their time and thinking of you for their project
  • Explain that your schedule is busy because of [insert a specific example if possible]
  • Suggest an alternate person that would be good for the project [This helps them, helps you support someone else you like and ends the situation on a positive, helpful note]
  • Suggest a follow-up time if you DO want do the project down the road [If they’re genuinely interested in you and your work they will follow up. They really will. But DON’T suggest a time way down the road if you don’t plan on ever doing the project.]
  • End again with a thank you- even if the offer isn’t good, it’s polite to thank someone for taking the time to reach out to you personally.


5. Creating a Fail Safe and/or Support System

Like I mentioned above, nobody’s perfect. But if you help build a few support systems around you, you’re less likely to fall back into “Yes” mode as easily. Here are some ways I am currently trying to build this system around myself to make sure I don’t slide back into “say yes to everything” mode.

  • Get Help: That means different things to different people, but having someone to talk to or take things off your plate is invaluable. Whether that’s an intern, an employee, a good friend, a business meetup group or, literally, a therapist or counselor to talk to- this is CRUCIAL. You need to have a place to release energy and stress and regroup back to a healthy place. That sounds self-explanatory, but to me, the most important reason you need to do this is to remember what that healthy, happy place feels like. The further away you get from that feeling and place, the easier it is to forget how good it feels and how much you need that in your life. The last thing you want to do is create a NEW normal where being stressed out is all you know.
  • Take time Off: I know we’re all broken records about this piece of advice and we rarely take it. But this year, I started taking it. I don’t work on Saturdays (at all) and I barely work on Sunday anymore. And I feel like a very different person already. I’m not back to normal by any means, but I’m getting there. And I’m catching glimpses of the old Grace more and more every day. And it’s nice to feel her back again- I missed the old me that was excited, happy and energetic. And I was never going to find her again without giving myself a chance to breathe and rest.
  • Remember you can say YES and then NO: I realized that when I said Yes to something I felt like I was forever on the hook. But remembering that you can back out (responsibly) of a project if something comes up is important. Life happens and, in most cases, opportunities and projects can wait- or be handed off to someone else. Your health and happiness are more important. Remember you always have the “Yes, then No” card in your pocket and you won’t ever feel trapped and out of control of a situation.

6. Final Thoughts

I’m still working on this way of thinking every day. Even writing this post I had to stop a few times to have a snack, walk around, play with my cat and stretch. That means I’m finishing 30 minutes later than I wanted to. But Turk needed the play time and I needed some food to keep me going. Those things are more important in the long run and making little decisions like that and realizing the world won’t end if you’re a little late (or if you say No) is important.

If you take just three things away from this post, I hope they’ll be:




All my best to everyone reading. I hope all of you have the success in and out of your work life that you’re working so hard to achieve. xo, grace


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  • I understand you perfectly. I went through the same sympthoms 12 years ago. After several check ups (thank God nobody suggested I could have sclerosis), they found out I had stress and was suffering from a bad period of anxiety and all due to my dad´s dead 4 months before. I went to yoga classes and learnt to control myself when the worst moment of stress showed up (quick beating, the thought of having a stroke, hyperventilation…….)anyway, thanks for sharing, I´m glad you are ok now. And glad that we always learn something from any situation.
    Love from the north of Spain

  • I needed this post today. And yesterday, and the day before…
    When my eyes first skimmed the page and saw MRI my heart started pounding too.
    I had a similar experience last year, and I still have trouble accepting the fact that I am OKAY. I’ve been working on more sleep and less coffee, but this NO thing is kind of a revelation. Thank you for sharing so honestly.

  • Such wonderful advice. I’m learning to say no, but I am a people pleaser and have a hard time turning people down. Something I will definitely need to work on. Thanks so much for sharing these steps with us!

  • I have read so many articles like this in my life, and they never really “stuck.” They couldn’t deflate that sense of urgency that seemed to be attached to everything.

    What they all lacked was that one brilliant piece of advice: Opportunities aren’t luck, they are a result of your hard work, and you can keep creating them! That was the missing puzzle piece my brain was looking for to feel okay saying no. I’ve been trying to force myself to do it when my gut tells me to, but it is nerve wracking. Taking the urgency out of each individual offer and seeing things I can say no to as reassurances that things will be okay whether I say yes or no in a particular instance is brilliant. Thank you for this!

  • Thanks for this post, Grace. I recently turned down an opportunity that came my way because I felt the situation wasn’t right for my life right now. I did feel those “what if” twinges, thinking I might be missing out. Your post was validation that I did the right thing. I’m bookmarking this post to reread again later. Your template for a “no thank you” letter is something I’ll use as a guide, when I need it again in the future.

  • I understand what you mean by the best year and the worst year – my first book was published, which was amazing – but with a child to support on my own and no advance offered, the financial situation was dire (we moved into a friend’s place), I won’t go into the details but there were a few more challenges thrown in – and at the end of the year, I just collapsed, frightened senseless that something was severely wrong but it seems it’s just very low iron and exhaustion – and now I feel so silly for letting things get that bad and determined not to ever let myself feel that overworked again – thank you for sharing, it does help to know other women are going through similar challenges – and it doesn’t necessarily make us weak, just perhaps overworked. Tahn

  • My name is Lisa and I am a “stress-aholic”!!! I have been busy in my business for nearly 11 years, and I have often worn the “too busy” label as a badge of pride, a validation I was needed, and as a sign my business was successful. I was ok for a long time to give up my me time, it all seemed worth it to grow my business! But I got TOO busy and the flexibility I loved about my day was gone, always crunching for deadlines – and the headaches started.
    The last several months my husband (and partner) has been ill off and on. I wanted to be with him for doctors appointments and take some of the load off of him, keep the kids happy and busy. I put myself way down the ladder of priorities. In this case it was worth it, however the work load just never seemed to let up, the stress never let up, and the headaches became migraines. My business also took a hit around this time too – a contract that had been renewed annually for the last 10 years ended, and suddenly my income took a big hit.
    I thought my world might end! But it didn’t. With the work load eased I took the time to take care of my husband the way I wanted to and we both got better. And, funnily enough my work load changed for the better. Without this major client I had more time to give my other clients who returned the “love” and gave me more projects. The big financial hit didn’t really happen after all. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned. Saying No to someone or an opportunity is not the end of the world, even when someone else is saying No to YOU.

  • Just wanted to leave a note to say I’m reading this four years on, and finding it really, really useful. The idea of turning something down is so hard, even as I feel like I’m getting burned out, and I keep pushing personal/ passion projects back and back to take on things other people are asking for. Might be time for a spot of ‘sorry, not right now,’ I think (also, that was genius. It had just literally never crossed my mind that I could say this is not a good time for me, calendar-wise. What about another time?’).

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