Saying No Is Saying Yes to What’s Most Important

4 min. read
September 1, 2023

I used to pride myself on being high capacity. “Look, Ma! Sonny’s juggling lots of freelance projects and personal projects too!”

Now, I just see that I was unfocused, and being chronically overcommitted was a multi-faceted problem:

  • My compulsive need to achieve traced back to my middle school years when I got bullied at school. The confused, hurt 12-year-old in me longed for an unambiguous sense of belonging, and at some point, I made a commitment to stack up enough impressive achievements that no one could ever shut me out.
  • For most of my adult life, I’ve been in and out of debt. I won’t unpack the reasons and rationalizations here, but I have overloaded my plate with money-generating opportunities in an effort to make the debt disappear and also to prove I’m not a total hack as an entrepreneur.
  • I grew up in the American South surrounded by cloyingly polite folks. People pleasing rubbed off on me. Though I genuinely enjoy helping people, I’ve also said yes to many, many projects, meetings, and favors simply because I didn’t have a legitimate excuse ready. I didn’t want to hurt feelings. Being too nice, I defaulted to, “Sure, okay, let’s grab lunch.” Or, “Yeah, I can take a look at your website and give you some pointers.”

Now, none of you showed up to hear me unpack my little wounds and idiosyncrasies, so I’ll get to the point.

We say yes to things we really ought to say no to for a variety of reasons as unique to the person as the above reasons are unique to me. However, we cannot accelerate our progress with our most important projects, goals, and dreams until we start handing out more no’s than yeses.

There’s always a tradeoff, after all. A yes now to this means a no to something else, and that something may have deserved precedence. Giving a no may have meant reaffirming a commitment to yourself or to a spouse, child, or friend.

Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism woke me up to the many ill-considered tradeoffs I’d made over the years. Instead of giving yeses to my own sacred commitments, I gave yeses to other people. I put their dreams ahead of my own.

If you don’t set your priorities, and risk propriety to honor them, someone else will pick your priorities for you.

I now see that my long-term satisfaction with my creative work and career has a strong correlation with saying no.

If we’re going to finish these big, important, potentially life-changing projects, we’ve got to be prepared to say no, miss out, be misunderstood, and endure other people’s short-term disappointment in us.

Some projects have wild potential. Some don’t. The law of triviality suggests that we give more time to the latter.

What’s your golden gorilla—the most important thing you can do for your family, creative practice, finances, health, or career right now?

What do you need to start saying no to to make more space for it?

Even as I wrote this essay, an email came through asking me to participate in a photo and video shoot for my local entrepreneur center. It will only be 20 minutes unless you could make the 20 minute drive there, more time spent parking and walking, conversations with old friends and acquaintances, and the drive home. So, realistically, I’d be looking at 90 minutes.

This is exactly the sort of community effort I want to like to help with, and exactly the sort of commitment I need to decline this fall.

Here’s what I’ll be saying no to for the foreseeable future:

  • Volunteering
  • Speaking gigs
  • Networking events
  • Committees and boards
  • Favors and pro bono work
  • Podcast and blog interviews
  • More consulting engagements
  • Making new friends in the industry
  • Launching new Freelance Cake products

There’s always a tradeoff, and I’m committed to creating space for my golden gorilla, Free Money.

How about you?

If you don’t already have a “toolkit” of creative ways to say no, download this list of ones I pulled out of Essentialism.

When you’re ready, here are 3 ways I can help you:

  1. Freelance Fixes. This short guide walks you through 6 small but important “fixes” that you can make to raise your income without working longer hours. People really seem to like it.
  2. Morning Marketing Habit. This course will help you build an “always be marketing” practice, become less dependent on referrals, and proactively build the business you want with the clients you want. My own morning marketing habit has enabled me to consistently make  6 figures as a freelancer.
  3. Clarity Session. It’s hard to read the label when you’re inside the bottle. I've done well over 100 of these 1:1 sessions with founders, solopreneurs, and freelancers who wanted guidance, a second opinion, or help creating a plan.

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info

Austin L Church portrait photo.

About the Author,
Austin L. Church

Austin L. Church is a writer, brand consultant, and freelance coach. He started freelancing in 2009 after finishing his M.A. in Literature and getting laid off from a marketing agency. Freelancing led to mobile apps (Bright Newt), a tech startup (, a children's book (Grabbling), and a branding studio (Balernum). Austin loves teaching freelancers and consultants how to stack up specific advantages for more income, free time, and fun. He and his wife live with their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee.


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