A Completionist’s Guide to Not Completing: The Struggle to Say “No”


I’m a completionist—when I’ve set my mind to complete a task, I do it. This may sound like a positive trait, but that’s only because you are looking at it from the angle of productivity. After all, most leaders would consider themselves lucky to have a team of completionists.

The downside of being a completionist is that I feel compelled to complete tasks even when I don’t want to… even when the task is unimportant… even when the task is totally unnecessary. I will watch every episode of a television series regardless of whether it goes downhill. Do I want to stop? You bet I do. However, if I already put years into the show (when it was good), the logical side of my brain that says to cease is overpowered by the impulse to see it through to the end.

My completionist compulsions that push me to fight through the pain and fully complete a show are also active with books, hobbies, or chores—if I start it, I will finish it no matter how much dread I feel and regardless of how little consequence it has on anything of actual substance. That is why I am working on my ability to say “no.”

“No” is a powerful word. It frees you up from unnecessary commitments, daily distractions, and time consuming projects that divert you from accomplishing long-term goals and higher precedence items. It also helps establish a more industrious reputation and serves to convey your priorities to others. The challenge is how to say “no” in a definitive yet tactful manner. Here are four ways you can get more comfortable delivering the bad news.

Have a reason. In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir explain that the busier we get, the harder it is to say “no”. One solution is to have a pre-mediated explanation for saying no before you need it.

Practice your no’s. Studies have shown that having a specific plan in place before being confronted with a request is more likely to result in behaviors that are consistent with our original intentions. Therefore, to resist the knee-jerk instinctual “yes,” we must practice. Rehearse your go-to response so it flows comfortably and believably out of your mouth.

Determine your total commitment. Before you decide whether to accept an offer, find out what’s really involved. How much preparation is needed? What is the value of the project? What kind of exposure will it provide and can it lead to future opportunities? Make sure you’re taking it all into account before you say yes.

Say “no” the right way. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that the way you say “no” impacts your ability to abide with the decision. When faced with a temptation, instead of saying “I can’t” try “I don’t.” This simple change in terminology significantly improves the odds of making a more positive decision—where “I can’t” creates a feedback loop that’s a reminder of your limitations, “I don’t” is a reminder that you have control and power over the situation.

‘I don’t’ is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. ‘I can’t’ isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction being imposed upon you. So thinking ‘I can’t’ undermines your sense of power and personal agency.—Heidi Grant Halvorson, Director of the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University

Avoid the completionist loop. Recognize when your effort outweighs the rewards. Some things must be completed even though we don’t want to, but many initiatives do not merit a clean ending. They may have outlived their usefulness or maybe its evident that it will not have the impact that was expected. When this happens, have the courage and uncompletionist know-how to say “no.” Stop yourself before you waste your time.

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