I’m like most people I know: too busy. I’m probably a nerd for doing this, but I begin each Monday morning by diagramming out my week: administrative responsibilities on Monday, meetings and visits to make on Tuesday, classes to teach on Wednesday, etc. It’s really the only way I can keep up with everything; even then, I only survive because of the diligent eye of my wonderful administrative assistant. Inevitably, despite my efforts to manage my time, something always comes up out of the blue to occupy even more of my attention in a given week.
I once heard someone say that when you’re over-committed, you’re really under-committed. I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement, because I’m finding that even though I usually complete all of my “tasks” in a given week, I’m incapable of fully devoting myself to very many of them. In addition to work responsibilities, I’m a husband, a father, a student, a friend, a brother, a tee ball coach, a neighbor, and a citizen. The older I get, the more I’m understanding and appreciating the lost art of saying “No”.
When I was a kid, I heard “No” all the time. I think it was my Dad’s favorite word. Can I go play over at so-and-so’s house? No, you don’t need to do that. Can I go swimming at the neighbor’s house? No, you don’t know how to swim. Can I play Little League baseball? No, you’re not old enough. Once I asked to do something and Dad offered no explanation, just a flat “No”. I pressed him for a reason and this is what he told me: “Because sometimes you just need to be told no.”
Saying no can become a spiritual discipline. It helps remind me that I don’t bear the weight of the world on my shoulders. It reminds me that I’m not the Messiah.
It liberates me from the self-imposed oppression of activity and the false perception that my worth is somehow linked to my busyness. You see the same principle at work in the OT teachings on Sabbath and Jubilee. Sabbath is God’s “No” to the oppressive imperial system of brick-making and dollar-chasing. Jubilee is an assault on our predilection for security. In their own unique way, these ancient teachings remind us of our identity in the cosmos; they remind us of our utter reliance on God (grace) for all of our movements and presences.
What are you saying “No” to?
Here are some practical tips for saying no:
- Value your time. Be aware of your present commitments and how much time you have to commit to future projects. Keep a daytimer or an online journal to keep up with your meetings and appointments. When someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
- Begin by affirming who you will not say “No” to: your God and your family. Some things are non-negotiable. This is one of them. I will not cheat my God; I will not cheat my wife; and I will not cheat my kids by saying “No” to them. My “Yes” to them determines my “No” to others.
- Choose the best thing over the good thing. There are plenty of good things to occupy our time. Wisdom requires discerning between the good and the best. Prayerfully reflect on your own gifts and how God can maximize those gifts through the choices you make.
- Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
- Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.