You know that job interview question about “your biggest weakness” that everyone loves to lie about? (“My biggest weakness is I just work sooo much!”) For the longest time, my answer to that question was (and probably still is), “I don’t say ‘no’ enough.”
On the surface, this sounds like a non-answer or humble-brag. (“I’m just so nice and helpful and willing… it’s terrible!”) But actually, not saying “no” was ruining both my work and my life.
As a freelance designer and writer, I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. That was great for business, until I overcommitted myself and started producing hurried work. The more successful I became, the more referrals, offers, and invitations I got. And I kept accepting them. Even the crappy ones.
I wasn’t doing this because it was smart (financially or health-wise). I did it becausesomewhere deep down I felt guilty; I couldn’t bring myself to say “no” to anything in my professional life. I answered every email. I took every mysterious phone call. I pursued every hair-brained business idea that popped into my head, and I nodded and smiled at every acquaintance who came to me for feedback on a terrible business idea him- or herself. Every person who came to me for help got help, whether I was qualified to give it or not. I stopped sleeping. And I started hating it.
Then I started a company, a real company with employees and investors and high stakes. There was no way I could do the 100 things I was doing and run something like that. So I wound down the freelance stuff to just a few things I really cared about personally. I set an email autoresponder with an FAQ explaining that I was taking some time off life to focus on the business. I stopped answering my phone and listening to my voice messages.
Saying “no” was painful, but it was exhilarating.
In my attempt to root out the “yes”es that were killing me, I swung the pendulum perhaps a little too far, and nearly three years later I feel like I’ve finally found a decent balance. I still err on the side of being helpful, but I set aside meeting-free days, and I put giant headphones on at work when I need to be in the zone, with the promise to my teammates that I’ll get back to them. And rather than being at the mercy of squeaky wheels or cold emailers, I prioritize who gets my time: 1) Family; 2) Colleagues; 3) Me; and then 4) Everyone Else.
It’s still my greatest weakness, but I’ve become convinced of the power of a calculated “NO”.
And “no” is not just good for sanity. Here’s where else I think “no” makes a difference:
NO makes you more productive
Greg McKeown writes in a LinkedIn post about the biggest mistake capable people make: essentially, spreading themselves thin and diluting their personal brands. Saying “yes” too much prevents us from focusing on our “highest point of contribution.” Strategically saying “no” to things we’re less good at gives us time to sharpen the saw blades we want to be using.
I eluded to this earlier, but saying “no” to wanton meetings and appointments is the best thing that happened to me. And, paradoxically, by collating exploratory and advisory meetings into set blocks of time, I end up being able to help more people. Jeff Weiner writes about the importance of scheduling nothing, calling deliberate “no”s in your daily schedule for catchup and big picture thinking, “the best investment you can make in yourself.”
NO makes you more innovative
Saying “no” leads to better design. This is exactly what Apple did with iPod, iPhone, iPad, iMac and more. It’s frustrating as a gadget nerd to not get the bells and whistles you know could be (Where’s my NFC, Tim Cook?!), but great design and delightful experiences are often about what’s not there. The “kitchen sink” isn’t innovative.
Mike Lazerow, founder of Buddy Media, writes in another LinkedIn post that the #1 mistake entrepreneurs make is focusing on the wrong things. “Without focus, young companies can FEEL like they are accomplishing a lot while in reality accomplishing nothing,” he writes. That’s exactly how you feel when you’re imprudent with your “yes”es: like you’re doing a ton but getting nothing done.
The most important “no” in the world, in my opinion, is saying “no” to convention. To the expectations, the norms, the old “ways it’s done” that prevent us from doing the nonobvious, incredible things we should be doing. This is what Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In is: saying “no” to the artificial paradigms of the past. And this is what entrepreneurship is: saying “no” to the status quo of the present.
NO makes you a better writer and speaker
Want to instantly improve your writing? Say “no” to half the words. LinkedIn power-hitter Dave Kerpen has a great post on this here.
Want your speeches and presentations to sink in? Make them shorter. Say “no” to sentences on PowerPoint slides, so the audience focuses on you.
And that’s all I’ll write on this bullet, for fear of hypocrisy.:)
NO helps you be more helpful
I recently had coffee with Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and perhaps the most helpful human on the planet. He’s a man with a busy schedule who’s made a name for himself by preaching the benefits of giving in the workplace.
One might worry that in buying into the power of “no,” one might miss out on opportunities to serve which a) make you a good person, and b) fuel future serendipity, as Grant shows in his studies and writing. I asked him how he stays sane while being asked to give so much, and he said, “Givers will say what they can and can’t help with.” They’re selective and prioritize. Essentially, they say “no.” And they have to, really, if they want to remain helpful to anyone for long.
The key is recognizing where your strengths lie and where others can be more helpful than you, and then connecting those that need your help to those who can best help them, rather than trying to be a hero yourself.
Take a page from superconnectors and say “no” to doing everything yourself by sending people to the best sources of help for a particular issue. Then spend more time helping where you really excel.
NO makes you healthier
A lot of stuff out there will kill you if left unmoderated. Sugar, alcohol, stress, whatever. We get in trouble with these things by saying “yes” too often. In fact, I can’t think of anything that isn’t better for you when it has constraints on it. Except maybe happiness.
Whether it’s sleep, mental health, diet, self-improvement, or exercise, healthy habits are about saying “no” to sacrificing your long-term for the short-term.
Of course, it’s easy to take “no” to extremes and become a curmudgeon. There’s power in being adventurous, embracing serendipity, and taking risks. (Perhaps I’ll write my next post on the power of “yes.”) But when used skillfully, “no” can be the greatest word that ever happened to your work.