Say No, and succeed!

Pick any leader you admire and ask them to name the 5 things that have made them successful. The chances are that they’ll attribute their success to “saying no” to most things, allowing them to concentrate on the few things that matter.

As a rule, we are bad at saying no. And we end up saying yes to a hundred things that add no value to our lives. That’s not the worst of it – every yes we say eats up time that we could have spent on something fulfilling, something we care about. In effect, saying yes actually means saying no to something important to us.

Choosing what to say no to is an art – as much as how to say no. This is where legends can help us – I looked through some exceptionally successful people’s approach to “saying no.” No is a profitable strategy and has helped me much – please see if this works for you.

Categories of things to say to!

There are patterns of things that keep repeating in your life. If these are “no” things, the habit will win you significant time. Here are the 5 big reasons for No – and the Masters who practice it.

Values-based no – Clayton Christenson

We all know Mr. Christenson as the father (or Godfather) of disruptive innovation. On reading his books, we realize he was profoundly religious and placed life-values ahead of everything else.

Here is an extract from his legendary book, “how will you measure your life?”. This is from a speech he delivered at his alma-mater “Harvard,” He talks about the perils of not being 100% consistent in adhering to one’s values. The story dates to his earlier days as a footballer. His team had a key match on a Sunday – a day he dedicated to the Sabbath. Here’s an extract from his book on how he handled his moral dilemma:

But then I learned that the championship game was scheduled to be played on a Sunday. This was a problem. At age sixteen, I had made a personal commitment to God that I would never play ball on Sunday because it is our Sabbath. So I went to the coach before the tournament finals and explained my situation. He was incredulous. “I don’t know what you believe,” he said to me, “but I believe that God will understand.” My teammates were stunned, too. I was the starting center and to make things more difficult, the backup center had dislocated his shoulder in the semifinal game. Every one of the guys on the team came to me and said, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule, just this one time?” It was a difficult decision to make. The team would suffer without me. The guys on the team were my best friends. We’d been dreaming about this all year. I’m a deeply religious man, so I went away to pray about what I should do. As I knelt to pray, I got a very clear feeling that I needed to keep my commitment. So I told the coach that I wasn’t able to play in the championship game. In so many ways, that was a small decision—involving one of several thousand Sundays in my life. In theory, surely I could have crossed over the line just that one time and then not done it again. But looking back on it, I realize that resisting the temptation of “in this one extenuating circumstance, just this once, it’s okay” has proved to be one of the most important decisions of my life. Why? Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over in the years that followed. And it turned out that my teammates didn’t need me. They won the game anyway. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful, because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again. Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.

Allworth, James. How Will You Measure Your Life? (pp. 143-144). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition.

I think about this all the time. Values are personal – we each have values that we hold most dear (Swami Dayanand Saraswati posits that each of us has a hierarchy of values that defines our lives.)

Knowing our deepest and most cherished values and staying 100% compliant is a winning strategy). Which are those values you are ready to say “no” to – irrespective of the cost?

Hell yeah or no – Derek Sivers – Say NO with a “heart-based” approach.

You would have realized I am a fan of some of Derek Sivers’ ideas. He’s a polymath – so reading or listening to him is always exciting. He also has deep convictions that simplify his life dramatically. His two books, “Anything you want” and “hell yeah or no,” are powerhouses and can make you see the world more clearly and help you make choices to succeed.

Derek’s cornerstone idea is saying no to everything you are not 100% sure about. It is very radical. Listen to your heart – and if you have even an iota of doubt – say no. It is liberating, but not for everyone!

Here’s him describing this in more detail.

Essentialism: Prioritize one thing and say NO to everything else.

The right “no” spoken at the right time can change the course of history.

Mckeown, Greg. Essentialism (p., 131). Ebury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

This is a very useful part-head, heart-heart approach. It works well in Large Corporates too, given that it’s a very polite (but firm) no! In a later section in this post, we have a list of “Essentialism” strategies for saying no. Try them. They can be super rewarding.

Say NO to the wrong people – Naval.

As always, Naval, our contemporary philosopher, puts it and powerfully.

“If you can’t see yourself working with someone for life, don’t work with them for a day.”

In other words, if there are toxic members on your team, you need to get them to change or move out. No outstanding performance can compensate for jerk-ism (is that even a word!)!

He makes it clear that this extends to everyone – partners, clients, vendors:

“Who you do business with is just as important as what you choose to do.”

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity!”

With due apologies, we can say this “work with a toxic guy and a minute seems like a lifetime!”.

Urgent vs. important – Eisenhower matrix.

Eisenhower was a famed US Army General and went on to become President of the United States. He obviously had to make decisions that meant life or death for his team – and thereby invented the super famous Eisenhower matrix.

This site has dedicated apps and templates to get you started using this model to decide what to focus on and what to say no to. As Eisenhower is reported to have said:

“what urgent is seldom important, what’s important is seldom urgent!”.We cannot talk about “saying no” without looking at this Steve Jobs video, where he explains that the very act of focusing is all about saying no!

I think we can stop here – we are sold. But how do we go about practicing this skill?

How to say NO

Here are a few strategies that great leaders have adopted (some of them can be disruptive – but worth looking at all the same!

Strategies to Say NO

I hear many of you say, “I like McKeown’s graceful, firm no method best. Are there any actionable tips that I can put to use right away?”

You are in luck. McKeown has generously provided 8 very actionable tools you can use right now to practice your NO.

Say NO (gracefully) with the Mckeown toolkit.

Here are eight must-have approaches collated from Essentialism:

1. The awkward pause – When a request comes your way, wait for a few seconds, and the other person will realize your hesitation!
2. The soft “no”: Say no and continue with “I cannot do this now, but I can do this later…”
3. Let me check my calendar and get back to you: Gives you an option to revert with an “I am regretfully unavailable” later
4. Use automatic e-mail replies to excellent effect to convey you are not available
5. Say, “Yes, What should I deprioritize” – works best with your manager as you allow her to prioritize what’s more critical for you as opposed to spreading yourself too thin!
6. Say it with humor
7. Use the words, “You are welcome to X, I am willing to Y.,” Here you provide some support, but do not end up owning the task. The other person understands you are helpful – but only to an extent as you don’t have enough time at your disposal now.
8. “I can’t do it, but X may be interested.”

And the master says…

Seneca felt we were never short of time; we just had to get better at handling it.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.

Check this fantastic brainpickings.org post for more context around Seneca’s thoughts.

A “Say NO” Summary!

In summary, leaders are great at managing time. Saying NO is an art that can save us from committing to things we do not believe in. In the process, we will be richer for time. And we don’t need to say NO disruptively. There are methods to systemize our approach, and over time, our colleagues and friends will learn to appreciate it.

Please do check out my other posts. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Newsletter and share your feedback – it means a lot.

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