how to say no and be more productive

After I published an article on the importance of setting priorities for entrepreneurs and leaders, I got an email. It read:

Manish, I know what my priorities are. But how can I find time to work on them?

Each of us grapples with this question. And the answer to it is simple. Like Mike Flint, Warren Buffett’s pilot, you must learn to say no to anything that’s not a priority.

Warren Buffett said, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

This means the biggest strength of productive people – those who do more of the right things instead of trying to do more things right – is their ability to say no.

And it makes sense, doesn’t it?

Think about it. How often has someone asked you to attend a birthday party of their child and you’ve said, “Sure,” only to regret it two days later? How often have you said “Yes” to a request but kept delaying it for some reason or the other, even when you knew from the start that you didn’t want to do it? How often have you bought a product just because the salesperson pleaded, but didn’t ever use it?

If we take stock of our lives, we don’t need most of the things we own, or do most of the tasks on our to-do list. A simple “no” to 80 percent of your tasks will make your life 100 percent simpler.

Then why is saying no to tough for us?

Saying Yes is Our Default Behavior

Man and woman are social animals. This means others’ approval and support means a lot to us. This is why, at a subconscious level, we avoid doing anything that could jeopardize this support.

Saying no is one of them. We feel that if we turn down people’s requests, we might come across as rude, selfish, or egoistic. If we don’t oblige when others ask for something, we’re afraid that they won’t return the gesture when we need it.

Then there’s the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

It’s the “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you.”

This is why we attend get-togethers we don’t want to attend just because most of our friends are attending them, buy things we don’t need simply because they’re on sale, pursue opportunities we don’t understand just because everyone is talking about them, and keep checking WhatsApp for new messages every few seconds even when there are none.

But in all this, we fail to gauge the trade-off between what we are doing and what we should be doing.

Each yes you say has a cost in terms of your time and opportunity, and in terms of what you could accomplish and what you could ignore.

Each time you say yes to the mediocre or the good, you say no to an opportunity to pursue the great. Each time you say yes to a request that seems urgent in the moment, you say no a priority.

Each time we say yes to the unimportant in the present, we mortgage our future. Likewise, each time we say no in the present, we pave the way for a brighter future.

3 Simple Ways to Say No Without Offending Others

As mentioned earlier, we assume that people will either feel hurt or offended by our ‘no’. But according to research, that’s not the case. Vanessa Bohns, associate professor at Cornell University, said,

“People don’t take no as bad as we think they will. Chances are, the consequences of saying ‘no’ are much worse in our heads than in reality.”

So if you can say no with tact, people won’t get offended, and you’ll get more time to work on what’s important to you. Isn’t that great?

Here are three simple ways to say no without hurting others’ feelings:

1. Clarify what you’re saying no to.

When you turn down a request, make it clear that you’re doing so to the request, not the person. Look the person in the eye, smile genuinely and explain why you’re denying the request.

You can start with an “I wish I could, but….” to muffle the impact when you decline a request.

2. Be Firm on Your Decision

Once you’ve said no (or yes), stick to your guns. Part of effectively saying no involves being gently firm. No arrogance, just firmness.

If you get convinced against your will, people will recognize a pattern and use it against you. And you will end up where you started.

If you’ve said yes, put regret and guilt aside and give your 100 percent to the task. You have no way out, so you might as well do the best you can at it.

3. Offer an alternative.

Say you don’t like the location your friends want to visit for a trek. At such times, you can do one of two things.

You can go along quietly and gloomily and not have a good time. Or you can offer an alternative. For instance, you could say “I don’t like the location because there are too many people there. Why don’t we go to another one instead?”

Or if a team member asks for help when you’re pressed for time, you could say “I have a deadline to meet. Can you ask so-and-so? If nobody helps you, come back after Thursday. We’ll work on it together.”

Sounds easier, doesn’t it?

Of course, saying no doesn’t mean you never do anything spontaneous or interesting. It simply means you say yes in ways that increase your focus on opportunities that excite you and promise tremendous long-term returns.

Saying no means you care about prioritizing your time and energy and devoting it to the things that matter the most to you. Like innovation and growth.

Be proud of saying no to things that are not important to you. Like Steve Jobs, a chronic user of the word “no” famously said:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”

Summing Up

You don’t need a cape and out-of-the-world powers to be a superhuman today. Just build the ability to say no to anything that doesn’t kindle a deep desire in you or anything that distracts you from your long-term goals.

When you do, you’ll witness a spike in your productivity. And when your effectiveness increases, the same happens with your business.

By Manish Bansal

Manish is the Managing Director of SME Value Advisors, a platform that connects businesses with curated professionals who can deliver solutions. You can connect with him on

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