The Focus to Say No

The most powerful skill they don’t teach you in school is how to say no. School is all about compliance. You’re assigned work and expected to do it on time or face the consequences. So it’s only natural that you never really learn how to say no.

Think about it … Success in school is about saying yes. It’s about putting your head down and doing what other people tell you to do when they tell you to do it. Success in life is about saying no to the non-essential. It’s the things you don’t do that give you the time and space to work on the projects and deepen the relationships that matter to you.

The Hidden Cost of Yes

You can do anything, but you can’t do everything. Too often, we get confused about speed and velocity. We think saying yes means we’re doing more when, in reality, it often means we’re doing less. Saying yes to a project, a meeting, or a request commits you to something that’s often larger than you think. And things you say yes to have a habit of growing.

Saying yes to a request feels good … in the moment. We want to be the type of person that helps someone. But saying yes carries a cost. One that’s often paid in the days, weeks, or even years in the future. You say yes to one meeting, but it quickly becomes a weekly meeting. You say yes to working on a new project, thinking it’s small, only to watch as it grows like a week. You say yes to dinner with a colleague, that turns into another dinner. Saying yes consumes time, whereas saying no creates time.

Saying no is hard. Nobody knew that better than Steve Jobs, who said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

The first time I said no to my boss, I thought I was going to be fired. Of course, I wanted to impress him. But I knew that saying yes wasn’t going to impress him for long if I couldn’t deliver on all of his requests. So I said no to the non-essential requests. And there were a lot of them. As the new guy, you get the grunt work. I wasn’t opposed to doing that, but I also saw it as my job to make sure I carved out and protected space from doing my actual work. And because I wasn’t weighed down with too many projects, I could be more opportunistic, saying yes when a particularly challenging or interesting project came up.

Saying no is like saving your money in the bank, whereas saying yes is spending it. Most of us are on overdraft.  It’s easy to say yes. It’s hard to say no.  Before you say yes, ask yourself if it’s necessary.

Still curious? Check out eight ways to say no with grace and style.