What Should You Say No To

how to learn to say no and be more productive

“What you say is right, but I don’t think I can do it.”

Has someone said this to you when you gave them logical advice?

Have you said this to someone when they gave you logical advice?

People often quip out this dialogue when asked to do one thing — say no.

Saying no reduces burnout and stress, gives us more space to pursue our personal goals, not get taken for granted… the benefits can go on and on.

We also know techniques to say no. Don’t feel guilty, offer an alternative, be firm… the web is peppered with content that tells us how to say no without offending someone.

But when it’s time to walk the talk, we get cold feet. Saying “No” feels like a crime.

Why We Can’t Say No

We can come up with a bunch of reasons to justify NOT turning down a request. But they can all get classified into three key biases:

1. Our Obsession With Busyness

Doing stuff offers two short-term benefits. First, it keeps the loud voices out of our head. Second, it makes us feel good because we equate doing stuff with being productive.

The result is that we don’t care whether our frantic thrashing is moving us forward or keeping us rooted in the same place. Anything goes as long as it keeps us busy. in this, we take every enticing turn on the road because we don’t know where our destination is.

“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” — Lewis Carroll

2. “Yes” is Easy

It’s tough to choose a diet over junk food, exercise over Netflix, talk over work, distraction over focus. Our mind pushes us to say yes to the easy way out “just this once” at every opportunity.

But each time we avoid to what matters, we compromise our willpower a little. When we finally need it for a difficult task, it’s nowhere to be found.

3. Fear

Of missing out. A journal defines FOMO as a feeling that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of, more or something better than you.

As human beings, we hate losing far more than we enjoy getting something. So we’d rather say yes to everything and burn out than say no and lose out.

Of Failing. What happens if we fail at what we’re pursuing? What will people think of us? What’ll happen to the thing we hold dearest — our image?

No, it’s better to prioritize others’ work over our own. At least if we fail at it, we won’t fail alone.

Of Public Backlash. What will people think if we turn them down? Will they think we’re arrogant jerks? Will they sever ties with us?

We’d rather walk barefoot on burning coal than be seen as unhelpful even if it means sacrificing our self-image for our external image.

No one likes it when we push back

Which other reasons do you feel make it difficult for us to say no? Do leave a comment.

How to Identify WHAT to Say No To?

Andy Grove, the chairman and CEO of Intel, asked Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen how to build a strategy for lower-performance offerings to help Intel fight off challenges from startups that offered cheap products at the low end of the market.

Christensen explained that Grove could set up a new business unit and talked about business strategy. Grove cut him off and said: “I asked you how to do it, and you told me what I should do. I know what I need to do. I just don’t know how to do it.”

Most of us agree that we should say “no” more often. But like Grove, we struggle with the how. How to distinguish between things to say “yes” and “no” to?

Derek Sivers designed a simple yet genius philosophy: if you’re not feeling “hell yeah!” then say no.

This philosophy worked wonders for me. Instead of focusing on all things I should deny, I simply focused on what I wanted to say “Hell Yes!” to. It changed the question for me from how to identify things to say no to, to how to identify what I’m really good at.

If you would like to figure out the same thing, the three points below will prove useful.

1. Understand your Circle of Competence.

“I’m no genius. I’m smart in spots—but I stay around those spots.” — Tom Watson Sr, founder of IBM

People invest heavily in stocks and businesses they don’t understand just because they’re touted as the next big thing. Such people end up losing all their money (and sometimes more) because they couldn’t avoid saying no to what lies outside their circle of competence.

The circle of competence means defining your understanding of how certain things work. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. In fact, you don’t have to know a lot. You just have to be aware of how much you understand deeply.

This minimizes losses and increases your productivity. As your understanding grows, so does your circle of competence.

My circle of competence as a musician lies in 4/4 Time Signature Songs. That’s why I stay away from 7/8, 15/16, and all other signatures though they can make me appear more skilled. In writing, my circle of competence lies in non-fiction. So I avoid writing D-I-Ys and fiction.

How should you identify your circle of competence? Read on.

2. Focus On Less Tasks

A pottery teacher split her class into two halves. She instructed the first half to spend the semester studying, planning, designing and creating the perfect pot. A competition at the end of the semester would decide whose pot was the best.

The second half had to make a lot of pots and would be graded on the number of pots they finished. Even they could enter their best pot in the competition.

In the competition, the best pots came from students of the second half.

People who develop skills in a task begin with throwing the spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks. In other words, they try a lot of things, identify what works, and do the latter over and over again.

Try various things that interest you. Figure out what you understand well and work on them. This way, you’ll identify your circle of competence and the boundaries that you must stay within.

3. Make a WIP List

“Less is more.” — Robert Browning

Our to-do lists make us feel overworked because they contain between 10 to 30 items. We try to multitask and end up doing almost nothing of value. This is not only daunting it’s also depressing. (Not to mention that it reduces our IQ.)

Real productivity is not about doing more. It’s about giving tasks we start meaningful ends without sacrificing a lot along the way.

So change how you use your to-do list. Pick up three important tasks from it, finish them, and move on to the next.

If you’re an employee, work on these three tasks until they’re off your desk, and follow up periodically with the party whose court the ball is in. This makes you appear as a proactive person who stays on top of things.

how to make a to do list

When you work on fewer things, you can reflect on what you learned and apply those lessons to become better the next time.

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Summing Up

80 percent of results come from 20 percent actions. Spend all your time focusing on the futile 80 percent actions and you’ll burn out. Spend more time on the 20 percent actions and say no to the rest, and you’ll lead a simple and meaningful life.

Follow the above steps to identify your 20 percent actions.

There will always be dozens of burning fires. You should put out some of them. But you should let most others burn until they destroy everything that doesn’t need your attention.

Like money, your time and energy are finite. Use them wisely.

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