5 tips to help you “just say no” and take more control of your life

When I see the political shenanigans on our national and international stage, it makes me think back fondly to the Reagan years. I remember working as a young professional during the second Reagan administration in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. There were still quite a few competent civil servants working in the federal government back then.

Of course, Nancy Reagan was well-known at the time for her simple, straightforward “Just Say No” policy toward drug use. But public health experts and politically correct pundits ridiculed her for essentially advising abstention from drugs. So her program was quickly replaced once President Reagan left office.

But where did that response get us?

Since the sensible Reagan years, America’s drug abuse problem has spiraled out of control. In fact, the first-ever recorded increase in death rates in American history is linked to drug abuse.

So, let me make something crystal clear…

The science shows that abstaining from drugs is most effective…and the best way to stop drugs is to never start.

Plus, all good things in life, including good physical and mental health, require the ability to “just say no.” But saying no requires you to see past the crony corporatist government’s myths, half-truths, and lies, and seek out the truth for yourself.

And, by the way, drug abuse isn’t the only health issue for which abstinence should be taught.

Take the mandatory public school sex education programs…

Abstinence is no longer taught

In general, abstinence is no longer a part of our nation’s arsenal against unhealthy behaviors.

In U.S. public schools today, minors are taught everything about sex—except not to have it. And girls are being prescribed dangerous birth control and HPV vaccinations prior to the “age of consent.” Both of which result in incalculable, life-long damage to your health and reproduction.

Of course, saying no requires the self-discipline to follow healthy habits. And everybody needs a little extra help with that discipline on occasion. So, I thought I’d share some personal tips for saying no to unhealthy behaviors…

Say “I don’t” rather than “I can’t”

Some years ago, two professors of marketing researched ways language helps or hinders us in reaching our goals. For one part of their research, they followed 30 women in a wellness challenge to exercise more or make better food choices.

When faced with a temptation, one group of women was instructed to tell themselves, “I can’t.” For example, “I can’t eat sugar.” The other group was instructed to use “I don’t” phrases like, “I don’t eat sugar.”

After 10 days, only 10 percent of the “I can’t” group was still meeting its wellness goals. But 80 percent of the “I don’t” group remained on track.

Researchers believe the “I don’t” group achieve success because saying “I don’t” involves someone’s personal identity, whereas saying “I can’t” involves factors outside the person.

To put it another way, when you use an “I can’t” phrase, it gives away control to someone or something else. But when you use an “I don’t” phrase, you personally take control of your health.

You can use these same principles in other areas of your life, too.

It’s okay to say no to protect your time

The late Ernest Hemingway wrote, “Never mistake motion for action.” To me, it means that running around in constant motion doesn’t always equate to meaningful action, accomplishments, or results. So, sometimes, we just need to say no to things like meetings or volunteer work.

Over the years, I’ve found the following tools to be useful in helping you graciously say no to demands on your time:

  • Don’t take phone calls outside of business hours.
  • Conduct work communication via email to limit disruptions. As an added benefit, email allows you to communicate with people without fearing you are interrupting them.
  • Be direct and say “no, I don’t have time for that activity right now.”
  • Don’t apologize.
  • Don’t lie, as lying can lead to guilt later.

All in all, just saying no to extraneous demands on your time and psyche is a simple mind-body practice in today’s busy world. For more tips on finding peace of mind in the midst of your busy life, take a look at my book with Don McCown, New World Mindfulness.


“’I Don’t’ versus ‘I Can’t’: When Empowered Refusal Motivates Goal-Directed Behavior.” Journal of Consumer Research 2012; 39(2): 371-381. doi.org/10.1086/663212