These are the four signs you should actually say no to something

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Saying ‘yes’ is often considered a good thing, but it can be just as positive to say ‘no’. Don’t get me wrong, it can be a hard thing to do. As a society we often shroud it with connotations that make us feel like we’re letting people down or aren’t living our lives quite right, instead pinned by a desire to be agreeable or available.

Saying no isn’t rude or unkind, and it actually paves the way for a more authentic yes. But when should you say no? We spoke to psychologist Dr Alex Forsythe, Head of Psychology Partnerships at the University of Wolverhampton, and to business mentor, mindset coach and best-selling author Ruth Kidzi, about the psychology and benefits of saying no – and the why you should be saying it.

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‘Indebtedness’ has been a driving force in how we have developed

“The psychology theory of reciprocity suggests that people have a tendency to reward kind actions,” says Forsythe. “Work in this area has been key in understanding the powerful forces that explain why people feel obligated, indebted and duty bound to say yes, or no, to requests.”

“Humans are driven to make judgements and decisions quickly and simply,” she continues. “Reciprocity acts as a mental heuristic, which is our brains mechanism for taking effective shortcuts to decision-making. You did something for me, therefore I should now do something for you. So powerful is this mental shortcut that some anthropologists and psychologists have argued that this culture of ‘indebtedness’ has been a major driving force in how we have developed as a society.”

“The downside of this human indebtedness is that we can be driven to preserve dysfunctional relationships at significant personal cost. We find it hard to say no when we really need to say no,” she says. Kidzi is also a keen advocate of saying no at the right times.

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I’m a huge fan of being positively selfish

“Saying no shows confidence and helps you to focus on what is important,” she says. “It means you have clear boundaries and people will appreciate these. If you manage the situation and make it clear as to why you are saying it, you’re not damaging yourself or others. Honesty is the best strategy.”

She continues, “If you’re at work and you’re going to say no when you’re asked to do something, be clear as to why – maybe you don’t have the capacity or it doesn’t fit with your skill set. In your personal life, be clear on why you are saying no and give an alternative, for example, suggesting catching up next month?”

“I believe that being selfish is essential. If we don’t look after our own needs first we are not able to look after anyone else emotionally. As a reformed people-pleaser, I have realised that prioritizing my needs helps everyone else, so I’m a huge fan of being positively selfish,” she concludes.

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If you always say yes, you will run out of time for spontaneity

“In short,” adds Forsythe, “if you want to influence, solve a problem or effect an outcome, then saying yes can have an important impact on other people and their perceptions of you. Saying yes can help you ‘bank’ some much-needed goodwill that can be called upon when things get tough.”

“Saying yes can be an investment in the future, but this only works if you are able to reflect on the reasons you are saying yes, because saying no can also make your life better,” she suggests.

There are four clear signs that you should say no to something. Firstly, time is finite, even yours. If you say yes to everything, you will not only feel stressed – which can lead to all kinds of health problems, from mental health issues to diabetes – but you will run out of time for fun things, things you want to do, spontaneity, perhaps even eating and sleeping.

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Populism is promising others whatever you think they want

“When you are feeling like you have too much on, saying no or deferring is a way of helping you protect your time,” says Kidzi. “When you say yes to things and you mean no, you can increase your cognitive overload and overwhelm.”

“Assessing how much time that something will take and the impact on the relationship of a no is also important,” she says. A great way to ‘buy’ time, rather than make a decision immediately, is to say you will refer to your calendar and get back to someone, but do follow up on this.”

Secondly, a hot topic in political debate is populism: people promising others whatever they think they want. They’ll cut taxes but also increase spending – that kind of thing. Well, people can be populists on a smaller scale. “Yes, I can do that.” “Yes, I can give you that.” “Yes, I’ll be there.” But if like those politicians you can’t deliver on your promises, it can damage your reputation among friends and colleagues, as well as having a negative impact on them.

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Gut instinct is two million years’ worth of evolution

“Before you say yes (or no),” says Forsythe, “remember that at work, promises are the cornerstone of professionalism. When you say yes, you have to be able to keep that promise because keeping your word is integral to your personal reputation, your team’s effectiveness and the organizational culture and climate that you work in.” Take this approach in your personal life, too.

Thirdly, we all like to think of ourselves as rational, cerebral beings who make decisions based on information and experience. But good old gut instinct is the product of nearly two million years’ worth of evolution. The same brain chemicals that told your great (x378) grandparent that certain animals and fungi were best avoided, now tells you when someone offering or asking you to do something is going to be unhealthy. So sometimes it’s smart to go with that gut feeling.

If you feel intuitively that something is going to take up too much time or it isn’t a good idea, listen to your gut and say no. Equally, first consider your relationship with the person asking: if a close friend asks you to do something last-minute and you love and trust them, I would say to think hard before you say it. Equally, if something is making you feel like it doesn’t fit with your values, it’s an easy no.

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Saying yes can take focus away from your goals

Lastly, most of us crave ‘me time’ – the chance to indulge ourselves in anything from hiking up a new peak to napping. We also have career goals and things we want to achieve outside of work. For all of this, you need time and energy, and consistently saying yes to everything robs you of both. Even if your only goal in life is to do nice things for other people, don’t you want to choose what those things are, rather than just bowing to every request?

“At work, you can never be completely productive if you continually say yes to requests that are outside of your commitments and priorities,” says Forsythe. Kidzi agrees: “If you are asked to do something which would mean that you wouldn’t be able to achieve a specific goal because you have less time and resources, it is simple to say no.”

When you say yes to things but you want to say no, you not only increase your cognitive overload and overwhelm, but you take your focus away from your goals. Plus, you can start to resent the person or situation if you wanted to decline but didn’t.

Ready to practise saying yes? Join Flash Pack on a group adventure with other like-minded travelers.

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

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