The power of saying ‘No’

Women could learn a thing or two from Beyoncé according to journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge. In her essay taken from Life Lessons from Remarkable Women, Reni suggests the key to productivity no matter what your career or aspirations is prioritization and having the confidence to say 'no'


You have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé, or so proclaims the infamous meme. And it strikes a chord. After all, who wouldn’t want to achieve the superhuman productivity of Beyoncé? A viral quote that compares you, an ordinary woman juggling life’s demands, and Beyoncé’s largely unattainable achievements, is a commentary on how you use your time.

I know that when I first saw it, it made me evaluate my everyday actions – and it made me feel like I was doing something wrong. It took years for me to learn that my productivity problems weren’t because I was being lazy, or not Knowles-enough. They were because my priorities were all wrong. ‘Prioritize like Beyoncé’, the meme should say. ‘Say “no” like Beyoncé.’ Because unlike seconds, minutes and hours, priorities are harder to measure. But they dictate how we each use our time. And if you don’t get a grip on your own quickly, then everyone else will.

At the time of writing this essay, I’m a month away from the publication of my very first book. By some fluke of fortune, I’m also in the amazing, unlikely, mind-breaking position of dealing with a huge amount of interest in it. This is very unusual for a first-time author – so much so, that the received wisdom is just to be grateful for what little coverage you get. I have the luxury of choice – which means navigating the interest of four magazines with huge circulations, two major broadcasters, three established online publishers and four podcasts. There are plans for an excerpt of my book in print, and I’ll be spending a total of a month on a book tour, both in the UK and abroad.

Reni Eddo-Lodge essay

It’s taken a century for [women] to attain an education, find jobs and travel freely. But even though we’re out of the home and into the public sphere, there’s still this expectation that we must bend over backwards to accommodate everyone else – to put our own priorities on the back burner – just because.

I am overwhelmed with all the work I need to complete in the next month. This is an amazing problem to have. I’m under no illusion that this is the norm, and that I shouldn’t get used to this level of interest. I know people who’ve had to pay for their own book tour because their publisher didn’t care to publicly push their work to the press. In the attention economy, I am winning. In a month, for better or worse, my face will be splashed everywhere.

But I can’t do it all. I’m just one woman, with one body and one brain (and a very good and diligent publicist) and my plate is too full. My life is consumed by low-level anxiety, and the book’s not even out yet. So I’ve written a list of everything I’ve been asked to do, and I’m choosing to turn things down. I will be saying ‘no’ to some amazing opportunities, but I have to prioritize the things I commit myself to. Otherwise I will overstretch myself, and do everything badly.

I’m trying to extend this philosophy to the other areas of my life. Before I was an author I was (and still am) a freelance writer, a job at the sharp end of the saying ‘time is money’. Constantly juggling short- and long-term deadlines, I was often pushed to react to other people’s needs instead of being proactive about my own. Writing about race, I would interact regularly with editors and producers who wanted me to contribute to their sensationalism, like a TV debate about the nuances of racism with someone who doesn’t believe that racism exists. Once I realized the futility of these situations, I decided to set my own agenda. That’s why I wrote a book. Once I knew where I wanted to go in my life – what I wanted to do – it was easier to say ‘no’ to things that wouldn’t get me there. I said ‘no’ to silly requests. It meant I earned a lot less money, but I was more focused, and happier.

Of course, it’s easier to say ‘no’ to people you don’t really know than to those you care about deeply. It’s all very well prioritizing our own wants and aspirations, but we still have to contend with the time we owe to others. Before, I struggled to keep up with my obligations to other people. I bailed at the last minute, and forgot my promises. Now I fiercely protect that time and those commitments. Romantic or platonic – our support networks need constant nourishment, and it’s an important part of being an emotionally intelligent adult.

Yet when I click on the Facebook profiles of old acquaintances or former colleagues, I read bios that specify that these young women are currently ‘wives, mothers, daughters, sisters and friends’. These descriptions suggest to me that they see themselves primarily through their relationships with other people – and I can’t help but see more obligations. Don’t get me wrong, I hope I am good at being all of those things on that list, but I don’t think I can do any of those things well without putting my own personal growth first.

As women, we’re expected to self-sacrifice. Our passions are expected to be in complete alignment with the goals and aims of our loved ones. Their achievements are our achievements. I guess it makes sense: we were never supposed to be here, out in the world, participating in public life. Women have traditionally been providing the relief and support for men to achieve their dreams. We provided the relief by looking pretty, and we provided support by ironing their clothes and making their food, keeping their houses clean and raising their children. And we were taught that this was our natural calling, and that we should like it. But second-wave feminism shattered those notions, and now women are out in the world. It’s taken a century – a very short amount of time in the grand scheme of things – for us to attain an education, find jobs and travel freely. But even though we’re out of the home and into the public sphere, there’s still this expectation that we must bend over backwards to accommodate everyone else – to put our own priorities on the back burner – just because.

We all have our obligations in life, but we’re allowed to reassess them. I think feminism will have won when every single woman feels zero discomfort about relentlessly prioritizing her own needs and goals. These needs and goals will be different for every woman, and not necessarily anchored to her family or her career. For me, I needed to get my book out of my brain and onto a wad of paper, so I spent the best part of a decade doing so. People might not understand why you’re doing it, but you’ve got to carry on regardless. You’ve got to learn to say ‘no’. You owe it to the most important person in the world: you.

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more