I started saying "no" more often

Oct 21, 2021


Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was about to learn an invaluable lesson upon meeting billionaire investor Warren Buffer in 1991. Gates had grown accustomed to having every minute of his calendar occupied. After all, successful people are always doing something, right? Imagine his surprise when Warren Buffet disclosed that he kept a calendar which was mostly empty. Gates noted the moment gave him a profound insight: “It’s not a proxy of your seriousness that you’ve filled every minute in your schedule.”

Warren Buffet lives by a different philosophy. In a shareholder letter, he noted the “difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” The truth is we cannot control the amount of requests coming from those around us, whether that be our managers, colleagues, family or friends. What is in our control is how we respond to those requests. The onus is for us to protect our own time, energy and priorities by getting into the habit of saying “no”. And today, we’ll explore three techniques you can use to say “no” with more confidence and build the life you aspire to.

Your Starting Position

I want to begin with the starting position that we assume during our interactions. My default was to say “yes” when others have asked for my help in the past. Once the conversation had ended with a ‘yes”, I’d start making an action plan for how to complete the request and my other commitments in the stated time. It resulted in me having to deprioritise many of my own priorities and needs in favour of the other person’s. Internally I’d feel overwhelmed, stressed and resentful. It wasn’t healthy for me or the relationship I held with the person.

To maintain a healthy relationship with myself and the other person meant adjusting my starting position to protect my time, energy and skills. I moved my starting position in interactions from a “yes” to a “no.” This has been beneficial as I’m able to evaluate every person’s request from that vantage point and examine it based on two questions:

  • The first question asks, “Is this an equitable request?” The healthiest relationships are give-and-take. That means not only does the other person receive value from your efforts, but you also receive a form of reasonable value. It’s important to consider how giving your efforts, energy and time are going to impact your life and whether there is value in taking a request on. For instance: is this going to be a stepping stone for your creative dream, are you receiving financial compensation for your time, gaining the opportunity to advance your skills or work with those you admire?
  • The second question to ask is, “How will accepting this request impact my time?” I’ve seen it happen where many a times people will request your assistance and market the ask as the simplest thing in the world. But for you, the implications of accepting the ask means having to coordinate your time, energy and hard-work to accommodate their request. Sometimes within the parameters of a short deadline. And if the scope of the ask is bigger than originally advertised, you may find yourself committing entire evenings completing a project that serves their needs and leaves your health compromised. Always take a step back, observe the real investment of time, energy and effort being asked of you before taking any level of commitment.

Redirection, Not Rejection

Having asked myself those two questions, my starting position of “no” will usually remain the same. Knowing my answer is a firm “no”, I politely tell the other party my authentic answer. But that’s harder said than done. Because many of us worry we’ll appear disagreeable or fearful we’ll be outcasted for not being a team player. My advice around this is to reframe the perception of what your “no” means. You are not rejecting the other person. In actuality, you are doing them a huge favour in your honesty. Your response of a “no” gives them the opportunity to redirect their energy and find someone who will take in their request with enthusiasm and receive mutual benefit in the process. Your “no” is a win-win for more parties than yourself.

Don’t Prolong

The third technique in this video is to give your “no” fast. Prolonging your decision or response doesn’t serve you or the person making the request. It results in the request continually taking up mental bandwidth in your thoughts. It keeps both of you in limbo. By being quick in your “no”, you can better spend your efforts, time and mental energy focussing on the projects and priorities that bring about the biggest positive impact for your dreams and the world around you. Your “no” enables the other person the same grace.

At the beginning of my “no” journey, I found it useful to keep a few template responses at hand when politely declining a request. I’m going to share three which you can utilise in your own journey:

  • "I appreciate you thinking I’d be great for this project. Unfortunately, my workload is hectic and I can’t commit to a new thing. Hope you find someone else as it sounds like an amazing opportunity."
  • "Thank you for the invite. That’s the day of my girlfriend’s football game, and I never miss those."
  • "Honestly, I don’t have time right now. Let me recommend someone else who may be able to help you."

With those three examples, I feel you’re on the way to better protecting your energy, time and skills through the use of “no.”