Say no. Be free.

I spent much of the first few years of my business reacting to other people’s problems.

I would obsessively check my inbox, stalk my Twitter feed, and refresh my Facebook stream many, many times a day to make sure that I was on top of anything and everything that could be thrown in my direction.

If I had a day where I was away from my computer, my blood pressure would go through the roof. My hands would shake, my temples would sweat, and my heart would race the entire time I was supposed to be doing something else. (Usually necessary errands, though I did try to take the occasional day off here and there.)

When I was unceremoniously binned from my software job in 2008, I worked twelve hour days most weeks, which had wreaked havoc on my body. The hours gave me migraines, stomach problems, and anxiety that I didn’t even know I had. (Turns out that I was just overstressed, not anxiety-ridden.) I started violetminded in 2009 with the goal of working here and there, able to enjoy my newfound freedom and evenings with my husband.

Wrong.

Though much of building a service-based business is to pitch projects, make stuff, launch, rinse, and repeat… much more of it is discovering where your boundaries are. I didn’t start violetminded to work sixteen hour days back-to-back because I didn’t know how to say no.

I could feel the migraines pulling at the edges of my temples as my hands shook on the keyboard.

The sleepless nights of feeling guilty about not doing more in a day.

The unrelenting reminders that I was only as good as what I could accomplish in a day.

I morphed into an almost-perfect facsimile of my software developer persona, where it was more important to crunch than it was to sleep, eat, or move regularly.

Running a business through reactivity turned me into a burnt-out stress-monster that fantasized about burning it all to the ground and starting over at least four times (a day). Other people’s emergencies ruled my life. Just one more email. Just one more hour of coding to make sure that my client doesn’t hate my guts when I don’t come through like I said I would.

Around 2011, Danielle LaPorte asked me how I was doing in my business as we met up at an event. I smiled through my stress and told her that it was okay, could be better, but hey, I had to do what I had to do in order to get ahead, right?

“Or, you could say no.”

I remember gulping, my face hot.

How in the ever-loving-fuck was I going to say no to the people that I’d been so fervently telling yes to for the last two years?

She hugged me and looked at me with that fierceness that startles huge audiences into silence.

“Say no, Amanda. Let it set you free.”

I remember nodding and smiling wanly, trying not to burst into tears right then and there.

But I went home that night and grabbed my notebook — the analog kind that I tend to collect — to write down some thoughts on how I could build better systems to protect my work from my tendency to say yes to everything and worry about the fallout later.

The first thing I wrote on that fresh page was:

Say no. Be free.

It was the first step in taking back the little fragments of myself that I’d given away in the last two years. The simple act of writing down an affirmation to saying no (as opposed to lifestyle design’s mantra of “say yes”) was a breakthrough. Danielle had inadvertently given me permission to build a business with beautiful boundaries, instead of a freelance career that was at the mercy of my own character flaws.

Today, I say yes every day. But, even if I didn’t have two toddlers running around, I say no far more often. It’s the no that creates space for opportunities that wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s the no that reminds me that my work is made for better things than other people’s emergencies.

It’s the no that continually sets me free.

As usual, this photo is brought to you by the always amazepants JD Hancock.