If You Ever Want to Say Yes, You Need to Start Saying No

If You Ever Want to Say Yes, You Need to Start Saying No

Don’t you just love those “clean slate” moments in life?

I think back to my first day in a new town or at a new school. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any obligations. No one was waiting for me to work or to play with them. I was really free.

And each time I learned how very rare, fleeting and limited those moments are.

Clean Slates Don’t Last

No matter where I started fresh, in just a few days, I had cobbled together or fallen into a rudimentary web of relationships. People reached out to me, and for that I was grateful. But relationships come with expectations. Soon enough I had names to remember when I saw faces, acquaintances to greet and appointments to keep.

Of course, I also had people with whom to share my highest highs and lowest lows. “Thank God,” I would say to myself – and to God – when human relationships enhanced my own life.

Nonetheless, the longer I stayed in any one place, the more demanding my schedule got.

Before long my various “To Do” lists included more things that I had any realistic hope of getting to. I was swamped. Overcommitted. I had to start prioritizing people and things. The choices were always tough, sometime agonizing.

But when I didn’t do it, the agony just raised its ugly head in a different way: I let people down, broke promises, and undermined trust.

Why am I writing in the past tense? This process of trying to prioritize – to optimize – my limited time and energy goes on to this day. I suspect it will continue for as long as I draw breath.

But somewhere along the line, I did learn an ironic fact of life: To be able to say yes, you have to be able to say no.

To be able to say yes, you have to be able to say no.

It’s a Struggle

I still struggle with that, but I’m getting better. And I think Christine Carter’s advice in The Sweet Spot: How To Find Your Groove at Home and Work, is going to help me do better going forward. While I can’t do her entire chapter “Easing ‘The Overwhelm’” justice here, I can outline her process, which comes down to: “Decide on your five top priorities and say ‘no’ to everything else.”

Dr. Carter also offers a process for how to get to that point: “Sit down every year and write a simple intention (or personal mission statement) to use as a litmus test or filter for all new tasks, projects and activities.” Then pick your top five priorities and spend 95 percent of your time only on those activities.

Pick your top 5 priorities and spend 95 percent of your time only on those.

Note, you don’t have to commit 100 percent to your five priorities – just 95 percent. So you still can blow five percent of your time on things that don’t really matter a lot to you but are just fun or relaxing.

And note, too, that having fun and relaxing are legitimate priorities. God built us with the capacity to enjoy life. We shouldn’t waste it.

Dr. Carter is extra helpful because she shares the latest version of her own mission statement and the five priorities she identified to organize her life. I’m not there yet, but I’ve found her advice very helpful and practical.

Now it’s time to pray for perseverance. (If you want to pray for me too, thank you.)

Letting God be God

I think the biggest obstacle to avoiding over-commitment lies deep in our heart. We are both prideful and fearful at the same time.

  • We take pride in our own skills, energy and other personal resources, and we think we’re the only ones who can do the job – or do it right.
  • We’re afraid that if we don’t say yes to every request, every opportunity, that things will ultimately not get done and/or we will get blamed for the mess that ensues.

The notion that God is good, God is powerful and God will ultimately provide escapes us – or when it occurs to us, we reject it. Everything is all about me. And I am so very, very alone.

It’s not hard for a parent or an overworked team leader to fall into this trap. Often our charges seem totally out of sync with reality, totally irresponsible and indifferent to the very real, important responsibilities they have. If we don’t do something – immediately – chaos will reign.

In a phrase, we have trouble trusting in the active goodness of the Lord. We fear that if we don’t do something, it will not get done. Sometimes that’s true – but not nearly as often as we are inclined to think.

When we feel overwhelmed, it’s healthy to recall the words of Psalm 27 (among others), and if you have time for only one phrase from it, here’s a good one: “I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13) Just that short expression of faith – your faith – will help you deal with the situation.

We are not God. The supply of graces of time, attention and energy we are given is limited. We cannot say yes to everything. We cannot take on every burden, every cross that comes our way. Perhaps it’s helpful to recall that even Jesus got help carrying His cross.

We are not God. Our supply of graces of time, attention and energy is limited. 

If it’s difficult for you to recognize your limits, or if it’s difficult to accept and acknowledge them even though you know they are there, pray for the insight to see how you can best contribute to the common good. Ask for the courage to limit your scope to what you are truly gifted to do. Your goal is to bloom where you are planted. With practice, perseverance and prayer, you can do it.

“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6

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Owen Phelps

Dr. Owen Phelps is Director of the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and author of the book, The Catholic Vision for Leading Like Jesus: Introducing S3 Leadership — Servant, Steward, and Shepherd. He has presented Lead Like Jesus Encounters in Canada, Uganda and India, as well as all across the U.S.


He formerly served on the faculty of the College of Business & Management at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, and was a consultant on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Communications Committee for about a decade. He has served as a consultant to church organizations from Vermont to Texas. 


Dr. Phelps was an award-winning writer, columnist, editor and publisher with a multi-state publishing company before he began work in ministry. He has written several articles and contributed chapters to two books devoted to issues of faith-based organizational performance.


He and his wife Jane, a CPA, have been married for 49 years. They live in Durand, Illinois, and Lac du Flambeau, Wisconsin, and they have five grown children and 17 growing grandchildren.

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