Skip to content
▪ 4 min

The power of No

Use the power of no to get your priorities straight. You rarely regret saying no but you often regret saying yes.

For me, the best way to figure out all the things I have to do was figuring out which ones not to do at all. Not doing something is also a decision and using the power of a solid 'no' is a good way to prioritize and regain my focus. It's not about getting more done, it's about creating more time for things that truly matter. And the best way to achieve that is by saying no to most of your incoming requests.

With an incoming stream of requests, my workday is scattered with little tasks that are more often than not distractions. If I only where to obey all these small obligations, I won't get any work done. If you can't fit everything in your day, you need to make better decisions on what to do. By saying yes to everything you focus on being busy and fill every gap in your calendar with an incoming request. Stop that.

Low priority requests

The best way to get out of low-priority obligations is to say no in the first place.

The first thing you should do is identify all requests that fall into the 'shallow work' category. A term coined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. In practice, I find that most of the requests (90% rule) from other people are people asking me to do 'shallow work'. Easy to replicate tasks that don't create any value and I don't want to be doing in the first place. If I have nothing scheduled in my calendar or my task list is empty I would tend to say yes to all these incoming requests just to have something to work on. I stopped defaulting to shallow work.

If somebody makes a request a good thing to ask yourself is; if I say no to this, what could I be doing instead? If you are not getting your 'main thing' done it's probably because you are saying yes to all these insignificant requests. Often I say no because I don't feel like doing something and replace it with something that does give my joy even if that's not work-related.

If you've identified all those requests you should transition from a 'yes' to a solid 'no'. A clear no is better than a 'kinda' yes. Greg McKeown puts this nicely in his 'essentialism model':

You will always have control over the options since you can choose what to say no to. If you are in doubt and it isn't a clear yes, you should say no. Remember that you deny the request, not the person. You should rarely put the priorities of another person above your own.

If you don't prioritize your life, someone else will.

Never ever say yes because you think people will 'like you more'. Often it's the reverse. By saying no you are signaling to the other person that your time is valuable and people might respect you more for that. It's the trade-off between being 'popular' versus 'respected'.

Become hard to reach

Also, make people understand that you don't give immediate responses. I'll get back to you whenever I feel like it. E-mail is convenient for the one who sends you the mail (and the request) in the first place. They have questions about their priorities when it's convenient for them, not you.

Asking me to do something is pretty hard. Most people can't 'just' email me with a request and expect me to do it. Like sending a meeting date with 14 people in the cc without a clear agenda. That's not enough to convince me why I should come to that meeting.

My default response in denying a request looks something like:

$firstname, thanks so much for reaching out. Unfortunately, I need to say no to $thing. I don't have a lot of time available so $thing is currently not a priority. I don't think I'd be able to give this the attention I'd like to.

I always thank the person for reaching out and then go straight into the hard 'no' while also explaining why I'm saying no. Usually by telling the sender that the request is not my primary focus and then elaborate on why it isn't a bit further.

Sometimes you get a negative reaction when you decline, it's hard not to worry about them. But think it through, if the person reacts negatively, that person is probably not valuing your time anyway. Never let a negative reaction be an excuse for you to be rude. You should strive to be 'clear', not 'rude'. If I can think of a solution to a problem on the spot I'll always point someone in the right direction, try to re-schedule the appointment or offer alternative people to contact for their problem.

When you decline be nice but honest. Don't make up excuses, don't make half commitments. Make it a solid no. If it's something you can't say a hard 'no' to at least take some time before making your decision. Let that e-mail sit in your inbox for a day and come back to it the following day.

Make a not doing list

Every time somebody makes a request that I don't feel like doing, and want to avoid in the future, I put it onto my not doing list. It's the opposite of a to-do list. For me, it's a list of bullet points that I keep in a Notion board. Things like not attending meetings with no clear agenda or never video call if something can be written (async communication) are on top of that not-doing list.

In Make Time Jake also mentions a 'might-do' list. I usually put a label on those tasks in my to-do app of choice (currently Notion) and let them sit there throughout the entire day. If something doesn't feel relevant anymore the next morning, I remove it. Otherwise, I move it to my main to-do list.

And that's how I deal with incoming requests. Don't commit to every single one of them but pick the ones worth doing and say no to all the others.

Danny de Vries