Learning to Say No

The modern soul wrapped in toxic productivity has become a badge of honour. Learning how to say no has been more important than ever. What can philosophy teach us about this?

Learning to Say No

Building up your career and successes can be so difficult to navigate. Carving out who you want to be and then carrying out the necessary steps to get there is a challenge in itself. Note the keyword, necessary. In a world where humans are occupied with doing inessential things to appear a certain way, spending copious amounts of time managing mundane tasks and pleasing people, whose opinions should we not be concerned about, why do we still fill up our time with these empty carbs?

Humans operate on desire. They crave endlessly.

Saying yes essentially means that you have blocked out a chunk of your future time, a currency which is so precious in the modern world. We desire the opportunities, success and satisfaction of doing more. Modern day society badges productivity as excellence. However, saying yes to one thing, essentially means saying no to everything else. Yet, saying no to one thing, means saying yes to possibly many other things. The Stoics practiced only doing what it necessary. Completing the necessary tasks means that we fully utilise every present moment and get our value's worth in life. Saying yes to only the things that you need to do to serve humanity, the thoughts that are objective and actions which are of moral good.

"Because most of what we say and do is not essential. Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary?" - Marcus Aurelius Photo by Dino Reichmuth

Practical Exercise

Name one thing in your profession that is not essential.

Paperwork. Administration. Meetings that could have been an email. These add extra stress to our workload.

Yet, the system tells us that these are essential and important tasks, but are they?

Carve out some time today to evaluate the processes and jobs that fall within your time.

Ask yourself for each and every task, is this necessary? If not, cross it off your to do list and free up your time so that your mind has space to breathe, to rejuvenate, to rest.

(Adapted from Rumjahn, 2022, p. 24)

"Therefore profit comes from what is there; usefulness from what is not there" - Lao Tzu Photo by Kimson Doan

The notion of doing only what is essential can be seen in Daoist philosophy. Daoism is an ancient Chinese school of thought that arose in the 6th century BCE. The Dàodé Jīng (道德经) is the main text of Daoism, written during the Warring States Period (403–221 BCE) and is poetic in style. It focuses on "personal development by following nature" (Xing & Sims, 2012, p. 99) and perceives the human experience through concepts such as the dào (), using it as a verb defined by Ames and Hall (2003) as 'way-making', because "is not finalised and objectified but continuous...living a purposeful and worthwhile life that is embedded in and thrives through inter-connected human relationships" (Tan, 2020, p. 397). Moreover, the notion of wúwéi (無為) plays a key role in Daoism, defined as "unhindered acting that accords with nature and liberates oneself from burdens and stress (Xing & Sims, as cited in Tan, 2020, p. 398), and the Dàodé Jīng (道德经) will often use the metaphor of water to illustrate this. So, what does Daoism have to teach us about learning to say no?

Chapter 11 of the Dàodé Jīng (道德经), reads as follows.

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;

It is the centre hole that makes it useful.

Shape the clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes that make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

(Feng & English, 1972, p. 13)

"It is the emptiness there, not the substance" (Lin, 2006, p. 109) which we must focus on. Without the emptiness in objects such as vases, rooms and cups, it would render them useless. Lin (2006) explicates that we can perceive the dào () as the "ultimate container because everything is embedded in the Tao...the emptiness of the Tao that gives it power and functionality" (p. 109). Extending on this understanding, we must also be able to empty our lives by saying no to tasks that are unnecessary in order to be useful and functional. A mind full of anxious or busy thoughts hinders our ability to be present and engage with the task at hand. A heart full of unresolved trauma and pain prevents one's capability to love unconditionally and honestly. How does fullness and substance in your life obstruct you from doing what you really want? When we are able to utilise our emptiness in ways which are beneficial for ourselves and society, we will be able to enact wúwéi (無為), advancing towards "a community where everyone conducts oneself non-coercively by acting spontaneously and interdependently (Tan, 2020, p. 399). One may say this is idealistic, but striving with deference to cultivate oneself in this manner will benefit humanity.

Take the time to acknowledge what you have already said yes to and be grateful for that. Is there anything that deems to be non-essential? Desire everything that you have said yes to, for that is the only way to carry out living a life that is meaningful.


Ames, R. T., & Hall, D. L. (2003). Daodejing: “Making this life significant”. A philosophical translation. New York: Ballantine Books.

Feng, G. F., & English, J. (1972). Tao te ching. Vintage Books.

Lin, D. (2006). Tao Te Ching: Annotated & Explained. SkyLight Paths Publishing.

Rumjahn, A. (2022). Early-career teaching: an opportunity for reflection and self-development, Scan, 41(1).

Tan, C. (2020). The learning school through a Daoist lens. Oxford Review of Education, 46(3), 393-407. https://doi.org/10.1080/03054985.2020.1714571  

Xing, Y., & Sims, D. (2012). Leadership, Daoist Wu Wei and reflexivity: Flow, self-protection and excuse in Chinese bank managers’ leadership practice. Management Learning, 43(1), 97-112. https://doi.org/10.1177/1350507611409659

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