How to Say No

Saying no to someone is one of the things I’ve always struggled with. I’ve been known to be a “people pleaser” and say yes to things that either don’t help me reach my goals, or that aren’t healthy for me. As humans we want to fit in, and we want people to like us. We think that one of the best ways of doing this is to be agreeable and say yes.

As a third-year medical student, my time is more limited than it used to be. Saying no becomes a part of life because you simply can’t say yes to everything. I recently read James Clear’s article called “The Ultimate Productivity Hack is Saying No.” I couldn’t agree more. As he says, the fastest meeting is not to have a meeting.

When I got into medical school, I knew that my time would at some point be limited. And I knew that I needed to start practicing saying no so that when the time came, I could do it as a habit and with confidence. Here are my personal strategies as a recovering-perfectionist-and-ongoing-people-pleaser for saying no.

1. Have an idea of your goals…

I needed to make some goals in order to know if the things I was saying yes to would fit those goals. For instance, I knew that I wanted to be a good student so that I could learn as much as possible to help future patients. I also knew that to be a good student, I needed to stay reasonably healthy. I actually wrote these over-arching goals on paper. When you have goals, you can…

2. then ask yourself if saying yes would fit with them

Knowing my goals of being a good student and staying reasonably healthy, it was easier to say no to things that didn’t support these goals. For instance, when I was asked if I could volunteer for one Sunday every week, I could easily say no because I had made Sunday a dedicated study day. If my goal was to volunteer, it may have instead been an easy yes. This is a way of clarifying your decisions.

3. Just say “No thanks”

This is a weird thing that I’ve found. I used to say the reason why I was saying no. I finally learned that whenever I said why I wasn’t able to do something, the person asking me took that as an opportunity to problem-solve ways that I could overcome this reason. For instance,

“Hey, can you help out with the fundraiser this Friday?”

“Oh, sorry, I would like to but I have to go for a workout and then study.”

“Couldn’t you just study and workout later? Plus, you’ll have all weekend to do those things! We really need your help.”


“Come on, it would mean a lot to us!”

“Ok, yes I’ll be there.”

You can see that me trying to say no turned into them problem-solving for me so that I could be involved. I think people are generally trying to be nice when they do this, but sometimes it feels like they’re not taking the hint that you don’t want to do it. This is in stark contrast to the next scenario. This is the exact conversation with a classmate I had recently:

“We really need people to join our intramural basketball team. Can you please help us out with this?”

“No thanks.”

And that’s the whole conversation. I’ve tried this over and over again, and it’s such a bizarre thing that if you say “no thanks” and then stop talking then they usually respect your no.

This only works if you actually don’t want to do something and you are sure of it. The next tip can help give you some time to think.

4. Say “I need to have a look at my schedule and then get back to you”

What a productivity-saving sentence. If you want to do something, like if I had wanted to play on that basketball team but I wasn’t sure about it, I could have said that I just had to look at my schedule. This creates space. It allows you to reflect and make sure that what you say yes to is truly what you want and what will get you closer to your goals.

Make sure you mean this sentence when you say it though. If you don’t actually want to do the thing, just say “no thanks” up front. Otherwise, you’re just delaying the No, thereby making it harder on yourself and making the other person think you may actually do it.

5. Accept some guilt

I had to accept a few guilty feelings for saying no to things that would have helped people out, like that fundraiser that would have taken up all my workout and study time that I had been banking on. It sucks to want to help but to know that you can’t do all the things. My way of coping is to accept that I may have some guilt about it, and then look back on the reason I said no in the first place.

The more you practice doing these habits, the more you’ll make your life align with what you want, and the easier it will get.

I hope this helps and good luck!