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This is part of my series on How To Stand Up For Yourself.

A reader wrote, “Dear Stewie, I keep getting roped into stuff I don’t want to do. When is it ok to say No?”

This is a fantastic question, and something we all struggle with. And my answer is simple: Say No to any adult at any time, so you are free to say Yes to the right things.

Two examples:

  1. Everyone at work is going to a movie. Is it ok to say No? Absolutely!
  2. Your spouse asks you to make dinner. Is it ok to say No? Of course!

I know this may sound extreme, but you’re not obligated to give your time to other people, just as no one is required to give you their time. Your time is yours and yours alone. Let’s use this as a baseline, and then delve into exceptions.

4 cases where you should say Yes:

1. You want to maintain a relationship. Relationships need ongoing shared experiences to survive and thrive. You might go to a movie your friend picked just to spend time with them or make dinner for your spouse because they’ve had a stressful day, and a nice meal will delight them. You don’t do these things because you feel obligated but because you care about nurturing your relationship. Viewed through this lens, saying Yes to people we care about is not a burden but a joy.

Just beware of one-sided relationships, e.g., your friend always chooses the movies. Inequities are a sign of an unhealthy relationship.

2. Your spouse asks you to take out the trash. A modern household has many chores, e.g., cleaning, laundry, and maintenance. No one loves to do housework—it’s work afterall!—but everyone benefits when the work is completed. And the bigger the household, the more work there is.

So, keep this in mind before saying No to a task. Instead of complaining, ask yourself what life would look like if no one did this chore for a whole year.

3. You have accepted an obligation. Some commitments are short-lived, while others are long-lasting.

For example, you may be a caregiver to someone in a wheelchair. They might need help reaching things on a high shelf or traversing a steep ramp, but not need help with other life tasks, such as navigating friendships, finding a job, and filing their taxes. As such, you’re obligated to assist them with things they cannot reasonably do. At the same time, you’re not required to do anything they can do themselves.

4. You’re in a position to help someone in danger. We have a moral obligation to help others in peril, though the guidelines about when/how to save them are murky. Use your best judgment.

Parting thoughts:

You may say No to anyone at any time. But you don’t get to choose how they react or the lasting consequences. So, before you tell someone No ask yourself:

  • Do I want to maintain a relationship?
  • Am I being asked to maintain my own household?
  • Did I accept an obligation?
  • Are they in danger?

Saying No to unimportant stuff frees up time so you can say Yes to the right things. And that’s really the point here: say No to inconsequential matters, so you have time to say Yes to what’s essential. At the end of each day, ask yourself, “Am I saying Yes to the right stuff?”