Sunday, March 06, 2011

Know your limits and learn to say “NO”

If I were to write “A letter to my 18 year old self” I would need to include:
Know your limits and learn to say “NO”

Last summer, my friend Jess asked if I would help her run a charity event to be held in February. She had received a tip for a cheaper venue and was certain her company would sponsor the event. We came up with some great ideas to “change it up” and attract a larger crowd. Typically, January is a busy month for me; I work as an accountant and have spent many Januarys working 50+ hours a week closing the books and preparing for the year-end audit. Jess was persuasive and I agreed thinking I’ll find a way to make it all work.

The venue fell through; Jess’s company waited ‘til the last possible minute to commit to the sponsorship forcing us to hold off publicity ‘til early February. Everything was more work than anticipated. My year-end audit was a week earlier than usual, a co-worker became seriously ill and I had to cover for her. Much of the communication regarding the event needed to be completed during work hours. My manager pointed out volunteer work pays the same regardless of contribution. I ended up telling Jess I had to scale back my participation during the month of January. I know she was perturbed and I was overwhelmed with guilt.

The event wasn’t well attended and despite making money we don’t consider it a success. My relationship with Jess has changed and all I keep thinking is why did I say yes. I knew last summer working on an event in January would be difficult in the best of years. If only I had realized my limits and learned to say no back when I was 18 imagine how much aggravation I would have saved myself over the years.

I had always thought learning to say “NO” was a “woman” problem or a problem for young adults. Then I came across this post on Satisfying Retirement's blog. One of the things he has learned after a decade of retirement is he is Much Better at Saying "No." His lesson is so good I have to include it in its entirety. He writes:

When someone first retires there is often a rush of requests for that person's time. Volunteering for this or that, heading a committee, helping with the Boy Scout meeting..... the lack of a full time job must mean you are constantly available to help others. But, as the years pass by the ability to filter out the things you don't want to do becomes greater. The ability to say "No" to everything comes more easily. You find the strength to say "Yes" to the things that are meaningful to you and most helpful to others.

Surprisingly, this adjustment has been as difficult as any. Saying "no" is not part of our nature. We all want to be needed, liked, appreciated, and desired. The more things you are asked to help with the more you are validated. To turn someone down is to risk being seen as standoffish or aloof or selfish.

But, just as an awareness of the passage of time grows as you age, so does the understanding of protecting yourself. Spread too thin, saying "yes" too many times, and you will drown in all that validation. By becoming more selective you will do a better job at whatever you do agree to do, and be happier in the process.

As for me, I feel as I did at the end of a semester when I was attending college while working full-time. I need to take some time to kick back and take care of myself for awhile. In the future I will consider my limits before committing to volunteer work and I will never volunteer for anything that requires me to work during the month of January again.


  1. And, you will not beat yourself up too much about over-committing. You tried to be a great friend and it didn't work out exactly like you wanted it to, but it doesn't make you a bad person.

  2. Thanks Webb I needed that.