Addition by Subtraction – My Year of Saying No

NO. Such a simple word, really. Just two letters long, yet it has been such a difficult word to master.

N. O.

Why is that so hard to say sometimes?

Some days I look at my two year old niece and am just astonished by how quickly she learned the word no. It’s incredible, really. She’s good at it – uses it without hesitation.


It’s simplicity is beautiful. She’s not trying to please anyone. She’s just stating how she feels and what she wants in that moment. Is it lacking a little tact? Yes, but that’s to be expected of a 2 year old.

No is a powerful word, capable of shaping the very direction of your life, yet saying no can be such a chore. It comes loaded with a certain amount of fear that no two letter word should possess – fears of offending or disappointing others, of missing an opportunity, or of being improperly judged as being selfish or self-centered.

You have those fears on one side, and the legitimate reasons you want to say no in the first place on the other. It turns into a full-on battle inside of you.

What is one to do? How bad could a yes be? It’s definitely an easy answer right here in this moment…


Ah…that felt good. Nobody’s feelings are hurt. Everybody is happy. This could be a great opportunity! What a good day.

Sound at all familiar?

It will if you have even one people pleasing bone in your body. The struggle is real, and before you know it you have a ton of “extras” on your plate. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found that the more I add to my plate, the more mediocre everything tends to become. Actually, that sounds like something I learned in macroeconomics. Oh college days…

Over time, two things have become very clear to me:

  1. Being hyper-committed and “busy” does not necessarily equal to being productive or successful. I’d rather be the latter.
  2. Trying to please people is an endless, unrewarding pursuit. It needs a filter.

Coming to those conclusions (albeit far too slowly) is also how I decided to start this “year of no” for 2016. Let me explain how it looked for me.

In 2015 I was hustling hard and the more you hustle, the more opportunities seem to cross your path. Before I knew it I found myself juggling a lot of balls, trying to keep a lot of people happy. I started the year with a pretty clear vision of the 2-3 big things I truly wanted to accomplish both in my career and personally. At the end of the day, though, I found myself in a very different place. There was a disconnect and a dissonance between how I spent my time and what I truly wanted to accomplish.

How did it all turn out you ask? You probably guessed it already, those 2-3 things failed miserably. And the rest of the stuff I was juggling? Mediocre at best. Stinking economics class…

So I (finally) decided to put an end to the craziness and took action to get myself on point for 2016. That meant learning to look more closely at “opportunities” and figuring out good ways to say no so I could focus on those 2-3 things that really matter to me, which are:

  1. Building a business that allows me to help people improve their lives and creates freedom for me to live a healthy lifestyle (I want to be a good example of what I coach), travel more, and spend more time with my awesome family and friends.
  2. Kicking butt at triathlon, especially long course (Ironman and Half Ironman distances).
  3. Have fun. It’s cliche, but I want to enjoy most of what I am doing on a regular basis. It feeds productivity, too.

So I learned how to say no (key word learned). I got rid of a lot of superficial commitments. I said no to things that weren’t helping achieve the three things above. And slowly, but surely I am entering this hallowed space that allows for this weird thing called focus.

And it’s wonderful.

By subtracting I added so much to my life. It seems so backwards in a world that rewards busyness, but it turns out you can be happier, do more and be more by saying no to most things and only saying yes to the very best.

“Good is the enemy of great.” -James C. Collins

Now I know you’re not here to hear my life story so let’s talk about the actionable bits that made all the difference. Here are the biggest game changers from my experience:

Get Clear

Getting clear on the 2-3 big goals or ideals that are most important to you is so key. It lays the foundation for being able to say no and helps keep you on your vision when it gets hard.

Fair warning: if you do this but don’t follow through you will experience the same dissonance and frustration that I did in 2015. Be ready to take action when you decide to get clear on your vision.

Reduce Choices and Examine Consequences

This is key. Just by being very clear with your personal vision you will be able to weed out 80% of “opportunities” that don’t fit the mold, which is a good thing. When we have too many choices at hand we tend to either not choose, or go into default mode (which is saying yes for a people pleaser). Be clear on your vision and weed out everything that doesn’t fit. It helps to practice and become good at turning things down. Which brings me to my next point.

Learning to Say No Kindly and Clearly

No, by it’s very self, is a sentence. When you leave it at that, though, it often does come across as rude or selfish. That’s why it is worth learning a few good ways to say no kindly and clearly.

When done well you can preserve relationships, extend respect and stay on mission. It’s a wonderful skill to have in your arsenal!

Rather than unpack all of that right here, check out this great article I’ve read on the topic:

8 Ways to Say No Without Hurting Your Image

Come up with a few scripts of your own, then practice. A lot. It gets better with time, I promise.

Establish Your Support Group

Find a mentor. Talk to family or friends. Find the the people that will help you get out of your own head, offer other perspectives, and ask you good, hard questions to keep you on track and inline with your vision. Accountability is key, especially when establishing new habits which is exactly what this is. Get your group and have them help you on vetting the opportunities that pass the “first cut” I mentioned above.

Vet The Opportunities That Make It Through

Don’t be in a rush with the 20% of opportunities that do not get weeded out right away per the above advice. Ask for time to process them and really take the time to walk through the details. Sit down with your support squad and examine the potential consequences involved with either saying yes or no.

One of the better questions I ask myself is: “Will this create a synergy between the things I already have going on or will it just district and detract from them.”

That helps get things clear pretty quickly.

Go Public With It

Follow my lead on this one – telling folks about what you intend to do creates an atmosphere for accountability. In tough moments, just knowing that someone you know may ask you about it may give you enough pause to step back and make a solid decision.

For Daily Success, Try A Not-To-Do List

I like to have two lists to keep me on point daily: a to-do list and a not-to-do list. If I’m being 100% honest, the things that I know I shouldn’t do but end up doing anyways (reading articles on Facebook, checking emails and texts, etc.) are the ones that get me off task the most.

Choosing the 2-3 goals that are a priority for the day, then also establishing a list of things I will not tackle in a given day brings clarity to the mess that is my mind. Knowing I won’t touch a certain task on a given day just removes clutter and helps keep my processing power where it needs to be.

If you get your priority items done for the day (which feels great by the way), you can move on to some of the lower priority items on your to-do list. I absolutely love setting my day up like this because it really does help you be clear about what you want to accomplish and feel great about it when you do.

Everybody has their own systems for this but I share mine in case it helps. I use an app called Trello to keep it all organized and, most importantly, easy.

I have a long-term, short-term, and a “today” list that I can easily move items around in as demands change. The 2-3 priority items make it onto the today list and the others remain in short term. It’s easy, fluid and fast. Great tool Check it out if you have the time.

Say Yes, To The Best

“The successful warrior is the average man, with laser-like focus.” – Bruce Lee

Human behavior is a messy arena. It is my hope that sharing this brings some clarity to your mind. Decluttering and leaving room in your life so you can say yes to only the best of opportunities is such a great feeling.

Like so many things, it comes down to human behavior, or, put another way, recognizing bad habits and replacing them with new habits. If you’re curious about the best way to get habits to stick, or would like some accountability as you give it a go – reach out. That is a big part of what we do with our clients here at Rare Air Fitness.

Here’s to a great year!

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