What you don’t do determines what you can do. – Tim Ferriss
Have you ever lost out on an opportunity because you had already committed to something mediocre?
Maybe you agree to see an average movie only to get invited later to go snowboarding that same day. Or perhaps you commit to working exclusively with one client over the next four weeks – only to be forced to turn down a better offer you receive a day later.
While you could renege on your promises in both of these situations, if you do that too many times you’ll find yourself without any friends or customers.
So what do you do when you find yourself saying “yes” to the wrong things? Or, more importantly, how do you know what to say “yes” to in the first place?
Especially for those of us who are optimists, saying “no” can be difficult. Every “no” can feel like a missed opportunity. We become concerned that we might say “no” to the one idea, relationship, or experience that would shape the rest of our lives.
And that’s a scary place to be.
But the reality of it is, you can’t say “yes” to everything. So how do you know when, how, and what to say “no” to?
Saying “no” is about prioritization
The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. – Stephen Covey
Most decisions in life are not a “yes” or “no” – they are an “either/or”.
Each “yes” has an opportunity cost associated with it. In other words, in order to spend your time or money on one thing, you give up the opportunity to spend it on something else. This doesn’t mean you should avoid risk – as I mentioned in “I pitched the CEO of a billion dollar company and this is what happened”, spending a few minutes to try something new can provide a substantial ROI.
Ultimately, saying “no” is about prioritization. With each “no” you give yourself time to focus on the things that matter most to you.
As a VC discussed in an interview with Forbes, by saying “no” to the less important things, you are able to spend your time and money on the things that truly matter to you, your organization, and your legacy.
As we all know from the Pareto Principle, 20% of what you do produces 80% of your value. By finding ways to say “no” to more of the trivial activities in your life, you become capable of focusing your efforts on the 20% that truly matters.
A quick and easy way to help ensure that you spend your resources appropriately is to simply ask yourself, “Is this really the best way to spend my time or money?” James Clear has a phenomenal article discussing this tradeoff. Determining what your time is worth can be challenging, but those who discover how to do this are able to organize their priorities, focus on what matters to them most, and accomplish more over their lifetimes.
“Yes”, “No”, or “On hold” – deciding what projects to pursue
The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything. – Warren Buffett
Knowing how to respond to each given task isn’t always easy. How do you decide which projects to say “yes” to, which ones to put on hold, and which ones turn down completely?
To start, it’s essential to realize that saying “no” does not make you a negative person.
Our society often associates the word “no” with being dull, unadventurous, or a tightwad – basically everything that’s not American. Our nation is the “land of opportunity” and responding in the negative is treated as an almost anti-opportunity response.
This thinking is wrong.
As Psychology Today shares, “No recognizes that we are the agents of our own limits”. “No” doesn’t mean that we’re trying to be jerks. Nor does it mean that we are worse at multitasking (something that is actually impossible to do) than others. It simply means that we have prioritized our life. We know what we want and we know what’s required to achieve this success.
A great example of this is knowing when to make the transition from full time employee to entrepreneur. This is one of the greatest dilemmas in many people’s lives. Initially, it may be possible to run your business in the evenings and on weekends – while still maintaining your day job. However, it gets to a point when this is not physically possible!
Because your business is unable to scale unless you spend more time on it, you are forced to make a decision – either keep your business as a hobby, or leave the security and stability of your paycheck.
It would be great to keep your job and excel in your business. But, realistically, unless you fully commit to one, you’ll remain mediocre at both.
So, the question remains, how do you know what activities to choose, and which ones to turn down?
To start, know what you must absolutely say “yes” to
Before you can know how to respond to requests from others (or yourself) it’s critical to know where your priorities are. What tasks deserve an absolute “yes”?
One of the easiest ways to know what to say “no” to is to have a healthy understanding of what matters most to you.
From your overarching life goal, to the essential elements that keep your business running, what are the things that require a “yes” to keep your life trajectory in the right direction?
This may be something grandiose, like turning down a job to start your own business. But it could also be those small, consistent routines that keep your life on track.
One example of this for me is how I spend every Saturday: watering my plants, changing 20% of my fish tank water, scanning and archiving mail/receipts, check business books for the past week, etc. By breaking many parts of my life, home and business into smaller recurring parts I am able to prevent things like my plants drying up, my fish getting an infection, or my mail and bills piling up.
These habits and others solve all the immediate needs my life and business have in the most efficient way possible so I have more time to say “yes” to other things. By staying on top of these critical activities, I prevent myself from playing catchup in the future – something that always takes more time than being proactive in the first place.
Once you know the things that are critical to your success, you know where you should spend the majority of your time.
Then, create a “do not do” list with your absolute “no” tasks
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a strong believer in organizing your life with apps, folders, and calendars. By efficiently prioritizing your projects, you prevent important items and tasks from falling through the cracks.
However, one of my Todoist folders (and a very important one) is my “Do not do” list – something I gained from reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done.
My “Do not do” list contains things that I have determined I will absolutely not do. This folder allows me to dump ideas or tasks that I realize aren’t worth my time – so that I can keep myself focused on the areas the really matter.
Just as you garage accumulates with junk that’s never used, your schedule can fill up with tasks that aren’t of any real value. This might be habitually checking how many views your blog posts or YouTube videos have; or it could be mowing your own lawn if it’s financially smarter to pay the neighborhood kid to do it. The tasks on the “do not do” list may not be bad, but they can take your focus away from tasks that deliver results.
By understanding the absolute “no” tasks, you eliminate another small segment of your todo list.
When possible, respond with an unconventional “yes”
The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes. – Tony Blair
If you find yourself saying “no” to the same activity over and over, but it’s something that you do value, perhaps it’s time to find an unconventional way to say “yes”.
For example, the web is filled with bloggers running their own courses. When you realize that people keep asking you the same question over and over again, and you don’t have time to respond, it may be worth creating a course that covers the information they are asking about. Although courses still require a substantial amount of time to create, they do give you the opportunity to share your knowledge with a vast group of people who you wouldn’t be able to communicate with otherwise – and potentially make a decent amount of money in the process.
Another option for a situation where you don’t have time to help someone is to refer them to someone else who has the time, skills, or rate that fits their needs.
No isn’t always saying “no”. Sometimes it’s simply ignoring someone because we don’t see value in the response. However, spending a few minutes to decide if you can help the individual can go a long way. A great book on discovering the value of helping people in small ways is “Give and Take” by Adam Grant. When you connect people, you strengthen your relationship with both individuals. The person who you referred is grateful for the connection. Meanwhile, the person you referred them to will appreciate the added business.
These are just two of many ways that you can find a way to “yes” to the person while still saying “no” to the direct request.
Say “yes” to more by hiring an assistant
To succeed today, you have to set priorities, decide what you stand for. – Lee Iacocca
As the CEO of SupportNinja and a diehard outsourcer, an article on priorities wouldn’t be complete without mention of outsourcing.
Over the year’s I’ve discovered that I can say “yes” to far more by learning to effectively manage an outsourced workforce.
Because hiring an assistant very clearly has a cost associated with it, it’s not a solution to everything. You can’t spend the same evening out with the guys and with your girlfriend by hiring a virtual assistant.
However, you can take on more clients, remove bigger hurdles, and substantially grow your productivity with an assistant.
To maximize the benefit of having an assistant, discover how to delegate tasks appropriately. You can’t hire a virtual assistant to run your business for you (if someone can run your company without any input, why shouldn’t they just start their own?), but you can begin handing off the repetitive tasks that often consume the majority of your time.
Personally, I have seen tremendous results from automating and outsourcing as much of my life as possible. Discovering how and when to outsource can save you thousands of hours – and allow you to say “yes” to more.
Say “no” to everything else
Say no to things you want but know you won’t really use. Say no to things you thought were important at the time of thinking of it but later decided it really wasn’t. Say no to things you continue procrastinating about. Say no to buying something you can’t afford. Each one of these “no’s” give you control over your future.
For every activity that isn’t essential, doesn’t receive an unconventional “yes”, and can’t be outsourced, it’s time to say “no” – without regrets. If they’re great ideas, add them to a list of future projects or “projects to be outsourced”, but then let them sit. You need to prioritize your time on the projects that are most important to you at this point in time.
When you clearly define what matters to you and your business, there’s no reason to feel guilty about turning down activities, projects, or relationships that aren’t in-line with your ultimate objectives.
And don’t look at it as being selfish. Ideally, your life goals include making a difference in the world. Therefore, by focusing entirely on your end game, you’ll be able to help more people in the long run.
Become a minimalist thinker – focus on your few key priorities
Focusing is about saying no. – Steve Jobs
The context of saying no applies to things we want to do as well as things we do not want to do. Being able to encode our single greatest priorities in the most important aspects of our life is detrimental in our eternal well-being.
I like to refer to this as minimalist thinking. The more minimal we are in our approach to our goals, the more time we will have to spend on other important aspects of our life.
You can think of this as finding the minimum effective dose and applying it to our cognitive thinking process.
The minimum effective dose concept is the idea that you should exert just enough energy to reach the intended result, but nothing extra. For example, because water boils at 212 degrees, if you heat it up to 220 degrees you aren’t receive any added benefit – you’re only increasing your power bill.
Saying “no” to activities and ideas that are extra, and don’t provide any real benefit to your purpose or objectives, will result in a happier, more pleasant, and more productive life. Admittedly, I can’t determine what (if any) of those activities are necessary for you. To discover this requires that you spend a few hours every so often looking at how you spend your time and comparing it to your overarching life goals.
Discovering when to say “no” is essential for success in business and in life. But don’t take my word for it, hear it from one of the greatest businessmen to ever live, Steve Jobs:
This post has not been revised since publication.