Five on Design  |  Episode 23  |  March 23, 2018

Why is it so tough to say no?

When I first started freelancing, one of my most common answers to a request for something from me was yes.” Yes” to this, yes” to that because I was building my business.

This wasn’t such a big issue at the time. I needed the clients. I needed the money. I needed the work. So of course yes” was the natural answer that I would give. But over time, as responsibilities piled up and things became a little bit easier from the money side, I found out how difficult it was to say no.”

It’s easy to get into the mindset of always needing to take on that extra thing. Always saying yes” to the request. Always saying yes” to help somebody out. We feel like we need to impress people, and I think that’s simply human nature.

It’s something that almost everybody struggles with. It’s difficult when you realize that you’re not at capacity to take something on or help somebody out. It always an awkward thing to say sorry, but…” and then make excuses to go along with saying no,” rather than just confidently saying it straight-up.

We also fall into this trap of the what if’s.” While you’re thinking about saying no,” there’s always the what if.”

What if there’s pushback?”

What if the person that you’re trying to tell no’ to doesn’t want to hear no’?”

What if the person that you’re going to tell no’ to might be the one that connects you to some opportunity that you’ve been going after?”

What if? What if? What if?”

It’s a difficult cycle to break. It’s actually the one that I probably struggle with the most. There’s always that what if,” there’s always that what might be on the other side of this?”

While I’m considering all of that, one of the other things that I never consider is, what if this is taking me away from? A bigger opportunity? A better opportunity? It’s difficult to turn that no” into a positive feeling because we’re so focused on the negative. No” feels blunt and difficult.

The biggest problem with saying no” it that it’s uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable to have to stand up and tell somebody no.” It feels like we’re letting somebody down, to cycle back to the first point. 

But one of the things that I’ve learned about saying no” is there’s an easy way to do it. There’s a not-so-standoff-ish way to do it.

When I was doing freelance work and I would have to say no,” I would try to line up an alternative.

No, I can’t take on that project right now, but here’s a referral that I can give you.”

No, I’m not able to help you with your website. But here’s a website that has a variety of links and resources that can help you out.”

Sometimes it had to be, No I can’t do that because, quite frankly, this isn’t my cup of tea.”

I never would make an apology for that. And in any case, I would never make an apology along with my no.” Sometimes no” has to be said. And that’s that. There’s no need to apologize for it.

When you work as a designer, especially as a freelance designer, one of the things you have to learn very quickly is what you can take on. What’s your capacity? One thing that I always tell a lot of people that come to me for advice, is you have to know that and you have to stick to it.

You’re not magically going to get more than 24 hours in a day. You need to manage your time.

On top of that, in 24 hours you still need to eat, sleep and have relationships with people who aren’t paying you for your time.

It’s important to set boundaries. That’s really what no” comes down to. Setting those boundaries and setting those guidelines in place, so that your clients, projects, or whatever your responsibilities are, aren’t taking over your life and running it instead of you.

What I found with saying no” is that sometimes it sucks to look at somebody, especially if it’s a halfway decent project, and say no.” But in that time I found, with little bit of patience, that it ended up being a good way to go for me.

It’s wonderful to have extra time or the extra ability to take on bigger projects that I want. It ended up being more freeing and actually more exciting and saying yes” all the time.

So if this is something you’re struggling with, take a moment, stop and think. Not everyone needs an answer right away and you might surprise yourself a little bit.

I’m confident that deep inside we all have the confidence to say no” when we need to. We just need some practice and support.