Ever felt the weight of guilt when you needed to utter that two-letter word – “no”? 

We’ve all been there. Yet, without managing commitments and establishing healthier boundaries, we end up stressed, overcommitted, letting ourselves and others down.

Consider the case of a professional I once coached, teetering on the brink of burnout. Her default pattern was responding “yes” in every facet of life, resulting in an overwhelming workload and a glaring absence of work-life balance. The obstacle wasn’t external but internal; she grappled with the fear of disappointing others, letting the team down, and falling short as a manager, colleague, and mother, burdened by an overwhelming sense of guilt at not being ‘enough.’ 

The toll on her well-being was palpable — she was utterly exhausted.

When prompted about what she would do with just a few guilt-free hours for herself, she promptly responded, “I would sit by the river and have some quiet time… but that would be impossible.”

Two hours are not a lot of time, especially in a week. Many of us could find this time by turning off Netflix and unplugging from social media. Yet, when pressed for a plan, my client couldn’t fathom making this space for herself. How would her boss react? How would her kids cope? What kind of person would she be?

It became apparent that my client’s propensity to burn out had little to do with time but belief. Unhealthy life scripts were at play, hindering her ability to establish a healthier work-life rhythm and prioritise self-care.

If guilt is stopping you from saying “no,” the solution may be in examining your life-scripts. This introspective journey can be more challenging than adopting productivity life hacks as it involves confronting your hidden thoughts, values, and beliefs – rewriting your story for a healthier, space-filled life.



Human beings are curious creatures. We aspire to get strong and fit but find ourselves lounging on the couch with a bag of potato chips.

Throughout my unconventional career—from Physiotherapist to Church Pastor and now a Productivity Consultant—one constant remains: each role supported habit change. Whether assisting someone in retraining hip flexors, teaching how to pray, or transforming work habits, the mechanism for acquiring new behaviours is the same. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are interconnected. To shift our habits, we must scrutinize our inner beliefs.

Cognitive expert Jaemin Frazer argues that “behaviour is simply the end of the assembly line produced by the factory of your beliefs.” In other words, what we ‘do’ is a natural outworking of our internal dialogue. The same holds true for what we ‘don’t do.’ This is why setting boundaries is challenging and induces emotional stress. It requires the courage to confront our limiting thoughts—to turn our ANTS into PETS.



Now, let’s delve into a practical framework to help you turn ANTS (Automatic Negative Thoughts) into PETS (Performance Enhancing Thoughts).*

Step 1 – Identify Consequences

Start by jotting down the physical, emotional, and social consequences of habitually saying “yes” when already stretched to the limit.

For example, consider the repercussions of saying “yes” to that extra project, meeting, or enticing opportunity. On the home front, what is the real cost of agreeing to that committee, extra-curricular activity, or after-school commitment? Will upgrading your car, buying a boat, or indulging in an overseas holiday stretch you to the point where you have no margin left?

Identify the consequences of your ‘yes’s.’ Write them down. Own the true cost.

Here are examples of consequences for habitually taking on more:

  • Constant busyness with out-of-hours and weekend work
  • Increased stress and fatigue
  • Anxiousness and loss of peace
  • Feeling trapped in your career
  • Damaged relationships due to impatience, crankiness, or passive-aggressiveness
  • Loss of perspective on what really matters

Step 2 – Define Your ANTS At The Decision Point

The second step is to write down your ANTS or Automatic Negative Thoughts.

Your ANTS are justifications and excuses you tell yourself at the point where you agree to a commitment, rather than considering your priorities, context, and capacity. These are thoughts that go through your mind whenever you decide to say “yes” instead of “let me think about it.”

Here are examples of real ANTS from past clients:

  • “I’m a team player and don’t want to let people down.'”
  • “I need to look busy to be seen as being good at my job.”
  • “It’s easier to say ‘yes’ than to cause trouble.”
  • “I’m a doer and a problem solver and feel good when people ask for help.”
  • “Self-care is selfish.”
  • “I feel guilty if I’m not always available when people need me.”
  • “If I work harder than everyone else, others will notice.”

Stop now, and think about the ANTS you tell yourself in the moments of saying “yes.”

Step 3 – Create Alternative PETS

PETS (Performance Enhancing Thoughts) are alternative beliefs that sow the seeds of better behaviour.

What could you say to yourself, in the moment, to make it more likely that you will make better choices and establish healthier boundaries in work and life?

Here are examples of ANTS turned into PETS:

ANT: “I’m a team player and always say ‘yes.'”
PET: “When I say ‘yes’ too often, I have to work late and on weekends and let my family down.”

ANT: “I’m a doer and feel good when my team asks me for help.”
PET: “I empower others by helping them solve some of their own problems.”

ANT: “Self-care is selfish.”
PET: “Self-care is putting on my own oxygen mask first, so I can be there for others.”

ANT: “If I work harder than everyone else, others will notice.”
PET: “If I take on too many commitments, I won’t do the type of exceptional work that really gets noticed.”


Take a moment to write down options for new PETS that might enable you to shift your habits in positive, life-giving ways. Put these somewhere visible and reread regularly to retrain your brain. 



Habit change is a process, not an event. Shifting deep-seated beliefs and behaviours takes time and practice.

Remember, saying “no” is emotional work—and that’s to be expected. Start the process and be kind on yourself. 

It can be challenging to express “I don’t have capacity” when a stressed colleague is seeking a favour. It’s assertive to declare “I need to take a longer lunch on Mondays” because I’m prioritising exercise at the gym. It’s confronting to tell your kids that “we can’t get take-away this week” because we’re saving for something important. However, setting boundaries and saying “no” is a hallmark of mature adulthood. It lays the foundation for a better future.

What are your ANTS? What are they costing you in reality? And how might you turn your ANTS into PETS, overcoming limiting attitudes and unfounded guilt? 

In my next post, I’ll delve into the skills required to set boundaries in a loving, mature way. But for now, take a moment to reflect on your mindset and beliefs – and let me know what you discover!


*This framework is an adaptation of the ANTS and PETS framework from Janette Gale, Health Psychologist, Health Coaching Australia –

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