Lately I've been thinking a lot about saying no, saying no to people in my life and to creative and financial opportunities. The problem is that my self-image is as someone who says YES! I've always benefited from my willingness to help friends, seek out new opportunities and see potential in creative ideas. But this approach has its downsides and lately I've been feeling overwhelmed, too busy and scattered. This post is about how I have learned, and am learning, to say no and how it has already greatly benefited me.
So at first, I thought the only problem was that I couldn't say no to other people: random strangers and acquaintances asking me for favors and advice. Family members needing a ride or babysitters. Friends needing advice and support. My real estate clients needed me to be available at all hours of the day. Saying yes to everything was impossible and my instinct to always be helpful was erratic and making me feel scattered. On its face, the fact that people are seeking me out is a GOOD THING. It meant they valued my opinion and thought I was a good resource, thus connecting me to my community. But when I can't say no, it's a VERY BAD THING. Who is being prioritized? Obviously real estate clients come first. But then what? Did I actually have the ability to say no, or make a mental flow chart of when I should say yes or no?
Actually, that's a good idea, I should make a computer graphic flow chart right now! ...Wait Martha... I'm getting sidetracked! Back to writing!
At one point I thought about keeping track of how many people asked me for favors or advice or contributions every day and using the data to write a long think-piece. (Spoiler: It was usually about two people per day. And yes, this post is basically my think-piece.)
So, instead of writing that think-piece first thing, I actually started thinking about ways I could solve this problem (and happened upon this podcast episode!) and I implemented some strategies.
1. I set up my creative coaching business so that when people wanted me to sit down with them for free and talk about their writing and creative pursuits, I could refer them to my coaching information. More than anything, this indicated that my time was valuable and my expertise was something I have been working on for over ten years. It was a validation and boundary I needed to set for myself. But, as a side benefit, I now have two coaching clients that I work with monthly! This was a win/win situation that arose because I said yes, to saying no.
2. I also made a promise to myself that I wouldn't volunteer for anything new until further notice. I asked to be taken off volunteer email lists and am wrapping up another project that has been hanging over my head. When I volunteer in the future, I will be doing it more thoughtfully and with purpose.
3. I got more intentional about my friendships and why I was pursuing some and not others. Was I keeping some relationships on life support only out of a sense of obligation or because I wanted to be liked? Was I doing all the reaching out in a relationship just because it made me sad that old friendships were just organically fading away? Why prop up something that just doesn't make sense anymore? It's fine to let people go. There doesn't have to be any hard feelings; life changes and we have to change along with it. I started saying no (to myself) when I found that I was reaching out to friends who weren't doing the same. Also, the added benefit is that I now have more time in my life for new friends that ARE reaching out.
4. I also fully committed to real estate. Not that I haven't been committed, but I am a new agent and am learning to deal with the emotional roller coaster that is a sales job. My training in the arts has been valuable in this regard, because I suddenly realized that throughout my life, no matter how my writing is going, or how well it is being received, I have always been committed to my work. I am an artist, full stop. It's who I am. I needed to bring this same attitude to real estate; no matter how well it's going, I am in it for the long haul; building a successful business doesn't happen overnight. I needed to start saying yes to to real estate and NO my anxieties.
5. This led me to rein in all requests for housecleaning and side jobs. I quit several jobs and now when someone asks me to do a job/gig, I only say yes if it fits my needs. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it was a huge shift in my approach: not only have I lived in poverty for many years, thus creating a real sense of desperation, I have also greatly benefited from my willingness to try new things, to say yes to nearly every opportunity that has presented itself. Not so anymore. I just can't do it. Not enough time! (And to even write in complete sentences apparently!)
6. In addition, I had to ask myself why I was saying yes to certain requests. Was I only saying yes because I thought someone would be mad if said no? Or wouldn't like me anymore? Or, was I saying yes because it was a good opportunity? If the answer was that I was saying yes because I was afraid of making someone upset or hurting their feelings, or if it was only serving my ego, or propping up my self image as a people pleaser, then no. No is the right answer. As Oprah says, it's about your intention, not your fear.
7. After making these changes, I also came to the unpleasant conclusion that I have a hard time saying no to myself! It wasn't just other people that were making demands on me. I was constantly making demands and sidetracking myself! I'm a very creative person with a TON of ideas flitting in and out of my brain at any given moment. This is a very good thing, but my propensity for pursuing every idea has led me down countless dead ends. Unfortunately thinking things through, mulling things over, thinking about how much work certain projects will take and how big of an audience they may garner ... it just wasn't natural to me. It harshed my buzz man! But I needed to push myself and take time to think strategically about my work and art. Cause if I am going to do this whole "artist's life" thing, I need to figure out a way to make it sustainable.
8. Also, I needed to re-implement a strategy I have used in the past, one that I have been telling my students to do for years: I needed to again, start a list of creative ideas, put it in my pocket or phone and every time I think of something, I need to write it down. This will help keep me from feeling overwhelmed and it will help me sort things out later into good ideas and bad ideas. It's part of the process of saying no to myself, because a good hard no, often starts with maybe. And that's okay.
An added benefit of the list approach is that the longer amount of time each idea remains on my list the more I realize that I have no passion for this idea; otherwise I would have done it already. Good ideas have to be both passion-filled, interesting and fun AND realistic, attainable and sustainable.
9. This brings me to my last point: What are my long term goals? How do my creative ideas serve these long term goals? I was driving by one of those "free libraries" that people put in their front yards the other day and the thought crossed my mind: I should start leaving my zines in these libraries! What a cool, serendipitous way to spread my work around! And then I thought: Wait, let's get real here. Let's bring the "Power of No" to this conversation.
I said to myself: your goal this year is to get a literary agent and start work on your next book. Your goal this year is to make a lot of money in real estate. Is your goal to maybe get one or two more readers by leaving your work around for free? Even though it would be fun and funny?
I think we all know the answer to that last question...