Saying no isn’t always easy, but it’s essential to maintaining a healthy work-life balance and cultivating your creativity, especially if you’re hoping to become a working artist. If the very notion of having a health work-life balance makes you snort, it’s probably because you, like a lot of creative individuals, view being overcommitted not just as a necessity for your own success, but also a badge of honor.
We roll into meetings, bragging about how little we slept. We get up earlier and earlier and stay up later and later, cramming in entirely too many activities, committees, and side projects. And while we know that these additional sources of income both feed our artistic spirit and fuel the economy in a not-insignificant way, they also have the very-real ability to burn us out. Doing some hustling on the side — whether it’s writing, photography, music, or any kind of creative pursuit – makes you a better worker and a more productive person, but when you find yourself saying yes to so many things you’re barely able to keep up, it’s time to adopt a new habit: Saying no.
For creative people, saying yes is a survival instinct. Early on in our careers, we’re just so excited to be invited to the table — any table — that it feels incomprehensible to ever say no to a project or proposal. Shooting your sister’s wedding for free? You need the exposure and experience! Designing a poster for a friend’s terrible band? Of course, because tens of people will see it! In those first few years (or maybe that first decade), saying yes is your best bet because it’s the only way to get by.
But by the time you have enough experience to command respectable fees and a lot of people or organizations want to work with you, you’ve built up that “yes to everything” reflex that becomes difficult to break. As you’re approached with more and more jobs and ideas, you find yourself smiling and nodding, while internally kicking yourself because a.) you probably don’t need all of this work and b.) when in the actual scope of reality are you going to be able to handle it all?
To make time, you begin to whittle away at your personal needs. Going to the gym becomes a true luxury, sleeping becomes optional, and eating at regular intervals is a laughable dream you vaguely remember from your earlier, leaner years. You begin to not only lose track of your own needs but, in all likelihood, the needs of your clients and the people you’re working with. In your attempt to juggle, some things will be dropped, and you will become less productive; allowing time for laziness is actually one of the best ways to maintain creativity, not the worst.
“When you allow every request to divert your attention from your most important activities of the day, everyone ends up frustrated,” writes 99U’s Elizabeth Grace Saunders. “Fortunately, the solution to this huge challenge often involves a relatively small change in behavior: Thinking through and practicing how to say, ‘No,’ or, ‘Not now,’ nicely.”
Because saying yes too often usually has the opposite of its desired effect. You’re saying yes, in theory, because you want to have a lot of great work out in the world, and because you want to work with a lot of interesting people. You want to appear nice, helpful, and useful. But when you say yes to everything, you run the risk of spreading your resources too thin, which not only hurts you, but tends to result in sub-par work. When you take on too much, you deliver too little — which isn’t going to win you any respect or new friendships.
Instead, it’s time to beef up your “Saying No” muscle by politely, nicely turning down the things that you just don’t have time for.
You don’t need to be rude to say no — but do be honest, or at least, as honest as is necessary. If someone comes to you with a project that is just a little too junior for you (or that you know won’t help further your career), let them know you don’t have the bandwidth, which is also very true.
Other ways to politely say no:
The recommendation. Say someone approaches you with a project that you don’t have time or, or don’t necessarily want to do, but it might be right for someone else you know. In that case, you opt for a recommendation.
“That sounds really exciting! I’m not sure I’m the right fit, but let me put you in touch with my friend who [talk up your friend.]”
The genuine-interest “maybe later.” If you really, really aren’t interested in a project, say no with no qualms. But if you really are intrigued and might like to work on something when you have more time, let the person know that it piques your interest, but not at this exact moment.
“Oh, I love that idea. I’m totally swamped with [whatever else you’re doing] right now, but in about two weeks it should clear up. Can we talk about it then?”
Whatever you do when saying no, don’t make it personal. You’re not brushing someone off, you’re just declining your offer. Be enthusiastic about whatever the project or idea is — but let the person know that it’s not right for you.