We all learn from a young age about saying “yes”. We learn to say “yes” to our teachers and parents because they have authority, and to our friends and family because we want to help.

Saying “yes” when we are young allows us to try new things. It feels good. Saying “no” means you are turning someone down. You have to experience their disappointment, and in the case of parents, possibly their anger.

“Yes” gets you a “thank you”. “No” must be given with an apology.

The Problem with “YES”

Saying “yes” too often can get in the way of the things you really want to do. Taking on too many unimportant things can make you too busy to do the things that make your life better.

One of my first jobs out of college was working as as an admissions counselor for a university in Tokyo. I said “yes” to pretty much everything. I responded to emails I didn’t need to, I said “yes” to meetings I didn’t need to attend, I said “yes” to taking on tasks from coworkers, and I said “yes” to things that didn’t need my involvement. At the end of the day, I didn’t get that much done.

I didn’t spend enough time on the part of my job I was being paid for, advising and recruiting students.

Saying “no” can be applied everywhere. Too many commitments in your social life can stop you from spending quality time with your friends and family. Too many activities/hobbies can stop you from dedicating enough time to each to get the benefits of being really good at something.

Being pulled in too many directions makes it hard to move in any one direction.

Start Saying “NO”

Saying “no” more often can help you get more done by focusing on the things that you care about. We are trained from an early age to say “yes”. Saying “no” is harder. It takes practice. Luckily, it is a skill that can be learned.

Set Clear Goals

Setting clear goals allows you to focus. Once you have something in your life to pursue, you will know what is important and what isn’t. A night out with friends might sound like fun, but if it comes at the cost of finishing a project or using money you are saving to start a new business, the opportunity cost is much higher.

Set clear goals with timelines. Adding a timeline to your goal keeps it relevant and creates a deadline. Deadlines keep you focused. You can find more about goal setting here: How to Set Goals.

Either “Hell Yeah” or “No”

This idea came from Derek Sivers. This is a great technique if you are feeling overwhelmed or can’t make a decision. When you are trying to decide on whether or not to do something, just ask yourself, “How do I feel about it?” If your response is “Hell Yes, I really want to do it”, say “Hell Yeah”. If your response is less than that, say “no”.

I have found this technique works great for all kinds of situations. I use it often when shopping. Instead of going back and forth on whether I want to buy something, I use the “Hell Yeah” idea. If it’s not “Hell Yeah” I won’t use it/wear it, so I say “no”.

Don’t Worry About Missing Out

I used to constantly worry about missing out if I didn’t say “Yes”. What I eventually realized was that the majority of the mediocre things I said “Yes” to were, in fact, mediocre. They weren’t amazing because I wasn’t interested in the first place. I should have spent that time doing something I better.

Practice

Learning to say “no” is a skill, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Start by saying “no” for an entire day, and then an entire week. This can also include things you might want to say yes to (it’s for the practice). You can also say “no” to anything that doesn’t meet your goals. Practice everyday and it gets easier.

Be polite when you say “no”, but you don’t have to make up excuses. You are saying “no” because you are focused on your goals, and that is perfectly okay.

Sometimes You Need to Say “Yes” Before Saying “No”

Finally, if you don’t have a lot going and don’t know what you want to work on, it can be okay to say “yes”. Say “yes” to new things and experiences. You may find something you are passionate about. Once you find that passion, its time to start saying “no”.