Everything we say yes to takes far more time than we think it will take, or what the asker says it will take. Also, most people think they will have more time in the future than they have now, but it never seems to turn out that way. The trend of being busy each week continues.

And yet people often say “yes” if the project or activity is not needed for another month or so. It makes sense therefore to ask yourself, before saying yes to anything in the distant future, “Would I be able to do it if the deadline were one week away?” If the answer is “No,” then that should be your answer if it is a month or more away as well. You know from experience that you will be just as busy in the future as you are right now. The only way you can justify saying yes is to give up doing something that is consuming an equal amount of time. Are you willing to give up something you are doing now to fulfil the request?

It may be difficult to say no because you do not want to disappoint someone. But in almost every situation someone must be disappointed. Every time you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. And that something else might be even more important.

Kristen Wong, writing in the New York Times, explained a technique for saying no that gives you a sense of empowerment. According to Wong, this refusal strategy was the brainchild of Prof. Vanessa Patrick and Henrik Hagtvedt at the CT Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. It involves using the words “I don’t” when turning down requests.

“I can’t” sounds like an excuse, while “I don’t” leaves the impression that you have established rules or policies in advance to cover such requests and are less likely to be taken as personal rejections.

Saying “I can’t” also leaves the door open for further discussion since it tends to be followed by “because” (the excuse), leading to a possible objection that this request would be an exception since it would not do whatever you claimed it would do.

For example, if you were asked to loan money to a friend, a response of “I’m sorry; but I don’t loan money to friends” is final, and yet has nothing to do with your feelings about the person. Researchers tested this technique with a pushy salesperson selling magazine subscriptions. When the participating subjects said “I don’t” versus “I can’t” they were more effective in getting their point across and the salesperson was more willing to accept no for an answer.

Examples of “I don’t” answers might be as follows.

I don’t buy from telephone solicitors.

I don’t make purchases over $100 without getting two quotes.

I don’t work on Sundays.

I don’t go to parties on weekdays.

I don’t work overtime on Fridays.

I don’t volunteer for more than two organizations at a time.

I don’t eat dessert. And so on.

To be productive and healthy you must sometimes say no to yourself as well. One research study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, separated 120 students into two groups. One group were told that they could face temptation more effectively using self-talk by telling themselves “I can’t do it.” For example, if they were tempted to have an ice cream cone, they would tell themselves “I can’t eat ice cream.”

The second group were told that the best way to resist temptation was to tell themselves “I don’t do it.” In other words, when tempted by ice cream, they would tell themselves “I don’t eat ice cream.” Both groups were asked to repeat their phrase many times until it became comfortable with it.

Then the students were asked to answer a set of questions that were completely unrelated to the study. When they were handing in their answer sheets, they were offered a treat – either a chocolate candy bar or a granola health bar – their choice. What they chose was marked on their answer sheet.

Those who told themselves “I can’t,” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time, while those who told themselves “I don’t,” chose to eat the chocolate bar only 36% of the time. The way they phrased their self-talk affected their choice.

A different study using similar phrases showed that the same phrase, “I don’t,” had a far greater positive impact in reference to goal achievement as well. For example, if you tell yourself that you do not skip your daily routine of working for 30 minutes on your exercise routine you will have far fewer lapses.

There are many ways of saying no, and many advantages in saying it. It is an essential time management tool that frees up time for your goal-related activities, reduces stress, and prevents overload. For a full discussion of how, why, and when to do it, refer to my e-Book, How to Say No When You Want to Say Yes, published by Bookboon.com.