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The Most Dangerous Word to Your Sanity (and How to Stop Saying It)

By Dave Stuart Jr.

“The most dangerous word in one's productivity vocabulary [is] ‘yes.'” –Cal Newport in Deep Work

If our fixed-schedule commitments are going to yield their greatest fruit, then we have got to reduce the number of times that we say “yes” in response to requests for our time. I could delve into the things that I think go on inside of us to make us say “yes” to more things even when we're already too busy, but instead of that I'd like to share some ways to stop saying “yes” to so many things.

  1. Filter through your Everest. When we know what we're ultimately after this school year, we can filter every request through that simple Everest statement that we've memorized. Nope, I can't do that Coding Challenge Weekend thing because, as cool as introducing kids to computer science is, it doesn't tightly align to my goal of making students better readers, writers, speakers, thinkers, and people this year.  (The computer science weekend thing really happened once, except that I said “yes” and it was a dud.)
  2. Avoid specificity. If the requester is asking us to do something during our prep or after school or during the weekend, we can say, “I can't make it due to scheduling conflicts.” This vague (but honest) response leaves less room for the requester to try to work around our specific conflict (e.g., “Oh, your wife is away that weekend and you've got all the kids? No problem! I can watch the kids while you do the thing I'm requesting!”). (Credit: Cal Newport's Deep Work, p. 239)
  3. Refrain from consolation prizes. I'm getting better at this. A student will come up to me and say, “Hey, I wrote a 50,000 word fan-fiction novel and I'm going to get it published — want to edit it for me?” To which I used to respond, “You know, professional writers don't have their teachers do their editing for them, so I don't want to start you off on a bad habit. But I'd be happy to read it!” That last underlined bit? That's the consolation prize. Instead, I'm starting to stop before the underlined part. “A clean break is best,” as Newport says in Deep Work.
  4. Pause awkwardly. If someone makes a request of you in person, you might (like me) answer quickly and (like me) foolishly with an unconsidered “yes.” One way to avoid this is to just pause. It might be awkward, but it gives you a minute to think and it might give your requester a minute to give you an out. (This one is from Greg McKeown's Essentialism.)
  5. Pass the buck. This one is kind of messed up, but I confess that I've done it. You say, “You know, I can't host the [insert club here], but maybe Mr. So-and-So can.” I feel bad just typing that. Don't do this one. I need to go apologize to these people. Okay, so this was a list of 4, not 5.

Ultimately, I think Greg McKeown sums up the inner conflicts we bring to this quite nicely. He says that the important shift for us to become more okay with avoiding the most dangerous word is for us to “make peace with the fact that saying ‘no' often requires trading popularity for respect.” In our hyper-connected world, we're obsessed with how we're perceived, and so we say yes because we feel that doing otherwise will make people think that we're jerks. “Yes,” McKeown writes, “saying no respectfully, reasonably, and gracefully can come at a short-term social cost” — in other words, it does lead to people thinking less of us at first — “but part of living the way of the Essentialist is realizing respect is far more valuable than popularity in the long run.”

I don't think McKeown goes far enough here. I'm on the same page with him when he says that popularity is cheap, and I agree that respect is the more valuable social commodity of the two. However, the point of reducing our “Yeses” is to help us complete a greater quantity of impactful work. And that is why saying no more frequently “distinguishes the professional from the amateur” (McKeown, Essentialism) — the professional knows what she's trying to produce and what it will take to get there, and she can't spare time for activities that don't contribute to that long-term objective.

6 Responses to The Most Dangerous Word to Your Sanity (and How to Stop Saying It)

  1. Michele April 18, 2017 at 10:33 am #

    Thank you for this wise advice, Dave. I appreciate so much the fact you are a champion for teachers maintaining a work/life balance, which ironically fosters better teaching and ultimately better learning!

  2. Joy Kirr April 19, 2017 at 9:31 pm #

    Oh, my gosh, Dave! I love this post! And it’s so odd, but I just wrote one about saying YES!! http://geniushour.blogspot.com/2017/04/saying-yes.html
    I know I will find many times to use your tips (except for number five??) – thank you for sharing!

  3. patrycja May 14, 2017 at 11:25 pm #

    I absolutely love this line here:

    “make peace with the fact that saying ‘no’ often requires trading popularity for respect.”

    It is so important for us teachers to learn to say the word “no” and be willing to lose out on the popularity we may have gotten by saying “yes.” I really think it’s time for teacher assertiveness training.

    I’m linking to this post from my blog post on end-of-the-year teacher burnout because I see “no” as the key to preventing burnout:


  4. Nancy January 2, 2018 at 12:10 pm #

    This particular blog has my name all over it! Part of my goal to serve the teachers in our district is to live in the land of “Yes” rather than “No, not gonna happen.” but that puts me in places where I can’t achieve my primary purpose, which is to support teachers so that they have a positive impact on student learning. The desire to give a “yes” to a request can limit my ability to do the greater good and achieve what really needs to be done. These are my top tips from today’s reading:

    Filter through your Everest – dont let my desire to say “yes” to good people prevent my from doing the greater good that these same people are looking for.
    Refrain from consolation prizes – these consolation prizes cut into the time & energy needed to meet the greater good and actually short change all players.

    Thanks for the tips.

    Yeah, I agree – #5 is a bad one. No one else wants to have to be the one to say “no”, unless you know for sure the other person IS looking to do that sort of task.

    Happy New Year!

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