Well-being
  • How to Say No And Mean It

    Author(s): By Thomas Davis, DNAP, MAE, CRNA  

    If you sense that your life is out of control, it probably is. If you blame others for causing your life to be out of control, think again.


    It’s 11pm and you are finally ready to collapse into bed. Just another day in your hectic life. You resisted the urge to smash the alarm clock at 5am, got out of bed and hit the floor at full speed. The clock is ticking. You have one hour to shower, dress, and get breakfast ready before getting the kids up at 6am. At 6:30 your phone rings, an early case was added to the schedule, and you live nearby so they assumed that you wouldn’t mind doing it. You can’t disappoint your colleagues, so you double the pace, drop the kids at pre-school early and race to the hospital. At lunch your boss flags you down…a policy must be revised, she is in a time crunch, and you always say yes, so she gives you the job then drops the bomb… it’s due tomorrow. You realize that your cases will go until 4pm and that you will be spending your evening re-writing a policy. At 3pm, a colleague lets you know that there is an add-on case and he can’t possibly stay to do it because his kids have a soccer game…you say yes again. Finally leaving at 5:30pm your phone rings again, your neighbor is tied up in a business meeting and needs you to pick up her kids on your way home. On and on it goes until you are totally burned out. What is the problem with this picture? You have no boundaries, and everybody knows it.  Something must change.

    Writing in Forbes.com, author Melodie Wilding notes that boundaries remove chaos and distractions from your life and serve as armor to protect you from unwanted invasions on your time, talents and resources. It’s nice to be helpful on your terms, but taking on the responsibility for solving other people’s problems crosses the line and must be stopped. She notes that establishing boundaries begins with self-assessment to include making a list of areas where your life is being encroached by others and include the tasks that you do but can and should be done by someone else.

    The first step in re-defining your life is openly admitting that the status quo is not working, and the second step requires making a commitment to set boundaries knowing full well that there will be pushback from those who enjoy your willingness to take on their responsibilities. Your commitment must be firm and not just something that you try out for a short period of time.

    Buying or selling property requires a survey of the land to clearly mark the boundary between what you own (your responsibility) and what belongs to others (their responsibility). Take a survey of your daily life looking specifically at things that cause you stress, make you feel uncomfortable, or push you to exhaustion and then draw property lines to separate your responsibilities from those of others. Ask yourself what it would look like if you stayed on your own property and did not accept ownership for the problems of others. Put up a fence and stop mowing the neighbor’s lawn.

    Set boundaries at work and in your life

    Identify priorities. Earning a paycheck is essential and gaining professional recognition and respect are very important for many workers. Beyond that, we all have things that are essential for our wellbeing. Whether it be connection with family/children, hobbies, activities or social interaction, everybody has things that are crucial to their happiness and wellbeing. List your essentials and note areas where a lack of boundaries has kept you from the things that are important for your wellbeing.

    Say NO and mean it. Determine where you need to build fences to identify your property line and then close the gates to keep intruders out. Without being an obstructionist, say no when others want you to fix their problems. To get you started with boundaries, here are three key phrases for protecting your time and space:

    • What did you mean by that?  When you sense that others are dumping work on you, clarify by asking what they meant and exactly what they are requesting from you. Make the other person verbalize the work that they are asking for from you. Hopefully, they will realize that they are imposing on you and will back off.
    • That doesn’t work for me. This simple sentence says it all and is most effective if it is stated decisively without an explanation of your reasons for saying no. Just say no.
    • How am I supposed to do that? Delivery is everything with this phrase. Your tone of voice must send the message that you sympathize, but the request is not reasonable. It is essential that you NOT sound sarcastic when using this phrase. Use a monotone voice and ask it as a simple question.

    The three responses above work best when they are followed by silence for as long as it takes. Discipline yourself and wait for the other person to respond. If you get uncomfortable with the silence and start to defend or explain your position you lose your power and the statement is meaningless.

    Communicate clearly. Setting boundaries involves establishing new rules for both yourself and for others to follow. Just as you would be upset if the speed limit changed and nobody posted the new maximum, others will be upset if you change the rules without telling them. For people who frequently encroach on your space, send a message that clearly states your new boundaries. Below is an example:

    It’s really important to me to be able to prepare a nutritious dinner and spend time with my children in the evenings after work, and as a commitment to my family I will no longer be available to pick up add-on cases at the end of the day unless it is my designated day to stay late. I’m writing now so that you are not surprised when I decline to relieve you at the end of the day to enable you to attend your children’s events.

    The message is clear but only has meaning if your action follows your words. Just say NO.

    Don’t skip breaks. It may seem like a small thing, but your breaks are earned and in many states they are required by labor laws. When you skip or rush through short breaks you open the door for people to take advantage of you in other areas. Taking a full break creates a boundary and tells others that you are off limits for the duration of the break.

    Prioritize tasks. Regardless of how good you are, you can’t do it all and spreading yourself too thin invites others to dump even more work on you. Learn to prioritize tasks and focus on what is important while discarding the rest. The Eisenhower matrix recommends identifying urgent/non-urgent and important/non-important when prioritizing tasks.

    Limit distractions. Setting boundaries starts with imposing limits on yourself. Identify things that distract you and eliminate or greatly reduce them. In our technology rich society, we are constantly being distracted by personal devices. Things that pop up on your phone invade your personal space and distract you from your priorities. Review the settings on your phone and turn off notifications. Plan several times per day to check for messages and email then stay off your device at other times. Breaking the tie to your phone will keep you from going down the Google black hole, will reduce stress, and will free up your time.

    If you sense that your life is out of control, it probably is. If you blame others for causing your life to be out of control, think again. There will always be people who would be happy for you to take on their responsibilities and the more you accept, the more they will give you. When you are overwhelmed, it is not because others are bad, it is because you have not established boundaries. Follow the advice in this article to sort out what is important in your life and use the simple techniques to build and enforce boundaries. The only alternative is burnout.

    Tom S. Davis, DNAP, CRNA, MAE, is the former Chief of the Division of Nurse Anesthesia at The Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and former Chief CRNA at (Baylor) Scott and White, Main OR in Temple, TX. Col. Davis, USAF (Ret.), is well-known throughout the Nurse Anesthesia community for his leadership in clinical anesthesia, including developing the first distance education model while on the graduate faculty at Kansas University Medical Center. Recognized for his expertise in team-building across department lines, Tom is a sought-after speaker, educator, author, and leadership trainer. Follow @procrnatom on Twitter.