saying no

Published on April 15, 2020

Saying no is one of the best ways you can make progress.

Every day, I like to aim to make progress in my personal, professional, or social life. I set a goal to either maintain what I am already doing -- which is the culmination of my past hard work -- or to do something new that allows me to improve.

Today, for instance, I am going to make progress by continuing my work routines as normal, and by committing to staying in the moment during my video calls this evening. These are both accomplishments -- small, but meaningful when allowed to compound over time.

I often find myself in the mindset that doing more is better, which comes from my desire to stay busy. Being busy makes me feel good. The more that I’m working on, the more productive I feel, which gives me a greater sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.

I am not going to stop doing more, because being busy makes me happy. But I do need to take some time to consider the nature of what it is I am doing. Do I need to be doing some of the things that I am doing?

Saying “no” is difficult because it often sounds rude -- it sounds like you don’t want to commit to something, which is a negative signal. Nobody wants to be known as the one person who says no to taking on extra work when the team is already on overdrive. Nobody wants to be the one person in their friend group who says “no” to going to a big social gathering.

In my life, I have trouble saying “no” when it comes to accepting more work.

I want to be engaged in good work as much as possible, and so saying “yes” more often is a good way to ensure I don’t have to stress about whether I will have enough to do tomorrow. There will be enough.

This is both a blessing and a curse. Having more work on my plate means that I am usually getting more done. I don’t need to search for more tasks. But, at the same time, I can sometimes take on too much, which can lead to backlogs being started very quickly.

My mantra when it comes to progress is “Making progress, day by day.” but perhaps I need to extend it. Perhaps I need to say “Making progress doing the things I love, day by day.” This emphasizes that progress should be related to doing what I love, not just making progress for the sake of it.

This recently came to mind as I was pondering a career opportunity. The opportunity would have allowed me to work on an exciting new project, but it would also have distracted me from my main job right now. That’s not a position I wanted to be in -- having two projects in my mind at the same time, each of which requiring my full attention -- and so I decided to turn it down and move on.

Saying no to a good opportunity is difficult. It took a lot of discipline, and still, I would love to have seen what would have happened. But progress is not measured in the number of tasks you get through: it is measured by the importance of those accomplishments.

The person who has authored one great book will be known more than the person who has authored ten “fine” books that very few people have read. It’s the classic argument of quality over quantity, but this lens is rarely applied to individual careers.

Saying no is part of making progress. Declining to engage in something means that you can spend more of your time doing what you care most about -- the things that are most likely to provide you with longer-term value.

With this in mind, I am now thinking about “how can I double down on what I am doing right now?”, because saying no has given me more time to play around with. I can now focus more on the topics that matter most, and go deep. I can focus on the relationships I have, instead of worrying about taking on a litany of new social engagements.

The worst thing I think can happen is for you to say “yes” to something, only to either not follow through, or to do something to a lower standard than you would like. To protect myself from the prospects of this happening, I want to say “no” more often to the opportunities that distract me from my main goals, and use the newly-free time to double down on what matters the most.

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