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Just Say ‘No’ (To All the Things Cluttering Up Your Life)

Reclaim joy and fulfillment with this small but mighty word

Published on: March 22, 2022

Mother meditating in her kitchen as her three children fly around the room

Remember your childhood summers? When I think back on those lazy, sun-drenched days of summer camp, I recall kickball in the park for hours, swimming in the lake, overnight camping in the woods — it was all so easy. Now that I’m a mom with my own elementary-school-age kid, though, scheduling summer camps seems anything but easy.

Last year, I filled a full notebook page with options, dates and costs for swim lessons, weeklong adventure camps and after-care experiences. Charting all this took me two hours. By the end of it, my heart was beating a little faster, and my blood pressure was rising. When I showed the final product to my daughter, she laughed out loud. “Mommy,” she said, “I don’t even want to do all of that. I want to enjoy my summer.”

That’s when it clicked. (And far more naturally than the Tetris-like configuration I’d crafted as I fit work, vacation and extracurricular schedules into eight-hour blocks of time.) There was no joy or anticipation in this exercise. There was no balance in that plan. This was an exercise in “making it work” that, in the end, didn’t work for anyone, least of all my daughters. We crossed off 30 percent of the scheduled activities right then and there, opting for less work for me and more enjoyment for everyone. 

Cue the contaminators 

This experience clarifies what I mean when I talk about contaminators in our lives. (I dive deeper into this in my podcast “Outside the Circle.”) Basically, any tasks that clutter up your schedule but don’t really have to be your responsibility fall into this category. It might be joining a parent-teacher organization. It might be heading up a committee at work. It’s the kind of thing that eats up your time and your family’s time and brings you very little joy.

When it comes to finding balance and fulfillment in motherhood, in other words, contaminators are about as helpful as a case of the stomach flu. And while it may be hard, the best way to kick these joy-suckers out of your life is by saying one small but mighty word.

“No” is necessary

That’s right, Mama. That word is no. There’s a ton of research and personal experience out there detailing how hard it is for people (especially women, and even more especially for women of color) to say this simple, two-letter word. But most of it boils down to guilt and fear.

Maybe you feel like you’re rejecting someone. Maybe you’re worried that it will make you look bad at work. But when you say yes to contaminators, the relief is short-lived. You feel good in the moment (Yay, you made someone happy!) but then you pay for it in misery and regret down the road.

My pediatrics practice, for example, holds an annual holiday party and wanted a physician to join the social committee to make sure someone from the executive team could offer input for the event. I said yes because I thought it was important to ensure that the culture of our practice came through at special gatherings for staff. But I soon found myself spending lunch hours discussing jelly-bean-counting contests and possible tokens of appreciation. As my free time dwindled and my to-do list grew, I found myself feeling resentful.

I had a choice. And Mama, we all do at the end of the day. I could soldier on and tell myself that sitting in on monthly meetings was actually helping someone. Or I could pull back, evaluate and change. I opted for the latter, dropping my monthly involvement and instead committing to attending two sessions in the fall that were devoted to holiday-party planning.

And that’s the takeaway, Mama. When you say no to contaminators, you say yes to more things that bring you joy and fulfillment.

No way, no can do ... Do you know how to say no?

Learning how to say no is the subject of countless online articles, seminars and retreats. But it starts with tuning in to your body. Your gut will often tell you when a commitment is worthwhile or not. You know that tightening in the back of your throat? That panic-driven nausea? That’s you talking to you. Listen in!

It can help to create a physical environment and schedule that allows space for reflection, evaluation and mindfulness. I mean, in an ideal world, we’d all have a private room where we’d spend a few minutes every morning and evening contemplating life.

But even if that’s outside your scope of possibility, taking a few quiet moments to mull over opportunities and requests is possible. Other ways to navigate the minefield of potential contaminators include:

Schedule a monthly audit of your life:

This isn’t as scary as it sounds. Just pencil in a half-hour every month when you review your regular commitments and see if any of them can go.

Don’t decide at once:

If someone asks you to do something you’re not sure about, just say you’ll think about it. Getting some space can help you figure out if a commitment is right to take on.

When you have to say no, say it directly:

Over-explanation and apologies create more opportunities for the other person to finagle a yes out of you. Just keep it simple with a variation of, “I’m sorry, but I can’t commit to that right now.”


If you can’t outright decline (read: work), then offer a compromise along the lines of, “Sure, I can do that, but I’ll need more time or I’ll need to take this other thing off my plate.”

It takes practice, but it ultimately helps you be more mindfully selective about where you spend your time. And, at the end of the day, is there anything more valuable than these hours that add up to your life?

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