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My year of 'no': How I stopped saying yes and why I'm sticking to it

"The cycle was difficult and heavy to bear, and there was no sign of it ending unless I made a conscious effort to end it myself."
Tyler Essary/TODAY/Getty Images

In November 2015, Shonda Rhimes published “Year of Yes,” in which the television powerhouse promised herself she would say “yes” to all the unexpected things that came her way that year. Parties, meetings, trips, you name it: Rhimes would dive in headfirst and see what would come from it. (Maybe something! Maybe nothing!) A self-proclaimed introvert, her go-to answer in the past would have been a polite decline, so she wanted to see what would happen if she walked through every door that opened in front of her.

I am not Shonda Rhimes. In most ways, I am not Shonda Rhimes. But in this way especially.

In fact, as I read her book, I realized I had the opposite problem: I often say yes more than I should.

Call it FOMO or just fear in general; when presented with an unexpected opportunity, I let my brain spiral into a panicked world of “what-ifs.”

What if this is the last time they invite me?

What if this is my only opportunity to work with this company?

What if no one offers me a job again and this is the last offer I get?

What if everyone thinks I’m rude if I don’t say yes?

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So I said yes. And of course, none of these things turned out to be the last of their kind — but I would be exhausted. I would then promise myself I’d take a break to focus on my mind and my health, but then another offer would come around and I’d panic about what might happen should I turn it down.

The cycle was difficult and heavy to bear, and there was no sign of it ending unless I made a conscious effort to end it myself.

So I began my “Year of No.”

Instead of saying yes to everything, I challenged myself to consider every opportunity that came my way from a place of desire and not fear. (By the way, this isn’t something I deploy when I’m invited to a birthday drinks gathering or dinner with a friend. It’s more about work-based asks and the jobs I take on as a freelancer, or about big social commitments that require a lot of time, travel and money — like weddings.)

I now say no UNLESS I can answer yes to the following questions:

  1. Can I do this while also being able to maintain a regular sleep schedule and time to participate in non-work things?

  2. Is this something I want to do or something I want to attend?

  3. Is this something that will fulfill me more than it will stretch me thin?

  4. Is this something that cannot be postponed or experienced at a later time?

And no to this question:

  1. Am I saying yes because I think people will be mad at me if I say no?

If I can make it past all five of these questions, I will consider taking on the work or project.

But usually, I can’t.

My desire to busy myself comes from a place of fear: What if I never make money again? Or people-pleasing: Will they be mad at me if I say no?

But it’s more disappointing if I commit to something I can’t 100% show up for. And if I always say yes to everything, I’m stretched far too thin to give all of my commitments 100%.

So, here’s my permission to just say no! Instead of letting people down, you might find they’re even happier with you when you start declining. As it turns out, it’s more annoying to be an over-promiser and underdeliver-er than to be someone who just says “no” right out the gate.