Do You Have the Freedom to Say No?

Freedom to Say No“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do” – Leonardo da Vinci

I’ve known people who told me they do their best thinking naked.

Most often in the shower but I’ve heard some crazy non-shower related stories too.

Folks tell me being free of clothing allows you to be free in thinking. I don’t doubt that, but there are other ways too.

I mention this only because I don’t do my best thinking in the shower, right before I go to sleep, or any other predictable situation.

My best thinking occurs on a walk with the dogs, typing up a blog article, in a conversation with a friend, or helping Grant stack blocks.

The common theme in all these things is I’m free to do them, or not do them, whenever I choose.

That’s why I love the phrase “ready, willing, and able”.

After much experimenting, I’ve found the best combination of these words is perhaps the most surprising.

What’s the difference between being willing and unable and being unwilling and able? And which is better?

Keep reading to understand.

The Pros and Cons

Let me first say that “ready” is the least important of the three components. We constantly surprise ourselves with what we can and will do regardless of whether we’re ready. Like the world’s fastest sprint to protect someone in danger or a lightning decision when delay means dire consequences.

That leaves us with willing and able.

Different situations call for different approaches but here are some high level pros and cons.

Freedom to Say No

Now take a couple of minutes to fill in the blank for the statement below. Challenge yourself to think about this in multiple and unusual ways.

I’m unwilling to ______ but I’m able to do it.

<waiting for you to think and write down your blanks>

And we’re back.

Were there some things you’re unwilling to do but being able to do them makes you sparkle with pride? If yes, pat yourself on the back.

Are there some things you want to be able to do but don’t have the ability right now? There’s a goal to work towards.

By now I’ve probably given away the answer to which combination maximizes simplicity and organization.

It’s unwilling and able.

But what about being willing and able? Isn’t it more important to have both so you don’t have to choose?

I don’t think so.

There are many tasks I’m willing and able to do but I don’t have the choice to say no. This can be a great thing (like parenting) or a crappy thing (like data entry to keep track of personal finances).

Without the freedom to say no, willing and able is a drag. That’s why I spend so much time working towards being unwilling and able.

Call it outsourcing. Call it shifting responsibility. Call it what you want.

I call it awesome and empowering and you can too.

Resources on How to Say No

Freedom comes from having a number of options to choose from and intentionally being unwilling to pursue most of them.

We all have goals to learn more, earn more, do more, see more, improve ourselves, and help others improve themselves. Cultivating your ability to do more is huge and I won’t downplay its importance.

But once you’re able to do something, you need to train yourself to be unwilling. Otherwise, you’ll be overwhelmed with far too many paths and far too many demands.

Many of the important transitions and key decisions in life revolve around the strategic use of one word: No.

Folks who achieve the most and tend to be the happiest have trained themselves how to say no. Why it’s so damn hard to say no is up for debate but learning how isn’t hard.

Here are some of the best resources on the topic of saying no.

  1. How To Say No To Others: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need: Celes, author of the Personal Excellence blog, wrote a fantastic article about how to say no and it’s probably the best primer out there. Perhaps her best tip is her last one; sometimes no reply or failing to acknowledge is the best way to say no.
  2. How to Say No by Julien Smith: Julien Smith is able to read thousands of emails, absorb piles of advertisements, take phone calls from all sorts of people, and crank through blog posts like there’s no tomorrow. But he doesn’t. He learned how to say no to these things and can now apply “no” to any part of his life. He’s a master at being unwilling.
  3. How to Say No (Without Being an Asshole): Lifehacker has some great articles and this is one of their finest. Read this if you like colorful language and clever illustrations. They even teach you how to say yes and avoid becoming a “no” addict.

I’ve read these resources and they have all made me more resourceful.

I learn to say no so I can achieve simplicity in life. Your motivation to say no and the power you generate from it will look different than mine but it’s just as valid.


The more you work your “no” muscles the more you reclaim your time and priorities. There are hundreds of benefits you’ll find when you get better at telling people no. And you can do it in a way that they’ll understand, appreciate, and maybe even walk away saying, “Yes. That person gets it.”

If I can leave you with one takeaway it’s this:

You should be the only one holding you back, not someone or something else.

If you’re like me, you know the feeling of being your own worst enemy. Just know we have much more power over ourselves than we do over others.

For me this comes down to freedom.

I want to have the freedom to say no even if it hurts me or hurts others. And I want to choose how and when I say it.

Do you have the freedom to say no? If not, what’s holding you back?

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