The power of saying no

When I went back to grad school to study how we learn and make decisions, I was lucky to get a brilliant supervisor. Brilliant not just because she knew her stuff, but also because she knew the secret to success in academia and in life: focus.

Once I figured out what my thesis question would be, she made sure that everything I did contributed to my thesis. Every book I read, every paper I wrote, and every study I ran all fed into my final paper. She even made me write my thesis question on sticky notes and post them around my office Ted Lasso style to keep me on track.

The impact of her guidance went far beyond helping me be the first in my cohort to graduate. I also learned the power of having a laser-like focus on my ultimate goal. Most importantly, I learned the power of saying "no" – something I see most of my coaching clients struggle with daily.

We've all heard the maxim.

Saying "no" to one thing lets you say "yes" to something else.

It turns out that's true, but oh so hard to do as a leader dealing with today's complex issues and challenges. Non-profits and charities are particularly plagued by this problem. Fuelled by passion, their people want to fix everything that's wrong with the world. Why is that bad?

  • It dilutes their resources, as they become spread too thin.
  • It confuses their people, as they struggle to meet competing priorities.
  • It hurts their revenue, as donors and funders shy away from ill-defined mandates.
  • It weakens their brand, as it's hard to tell what they really do.

The same goes for leaders who struggle to say "no" as individuals, both at work and at home. As a result, we're seeing rates of anxiety, depression and burnout skyrocket – which often results in great people dropping out of the work they love. Instead of having a deep impact on one issue, they end up making no impact at all.

I get it. Like many of you, I've struggled with this my whole life, always chasing the next big thing in the hope of making a difference. That ends here. This year, I'm taking my own advice and focusing on focus. Leaning into one thing (coaching) to have the most impact possible.

How will I do it? By using these 5 tips to say "no" to potential distractions.

  • Make your focus clear and public. If everyone knows your core mission, they'll be less likely to bring you things that are out of scope, which eliminates the need to say "no" at all. And if your vision of success is clear, they'll be more likely to help you achieve it.
  • Forget what others think. Rewrite the story you're telling yourself about pleasing others by saying yes – so that it focuses on the long-term impact you'll have on your core mission by saying "no". Then practice saying "no" out loud.
  • Use A/B testing. Make the decision binary. Would you rather say "yes" to the shiny new thing, or "yes" to your long-term goal? Both is not an option!
  • Watch a movie. In your mind, play out the future stories of what will happen over the next year if you say "yes" or "no" to something. Then assess the impact. Is saying "yes" worth the cost?
  • Be honest. Let people know why you need to say "no" and ask them to respect your boundaries, as you respect theirs.

Of course, life is never this black and white, and it can be hard to be this logical in the heat of the moment. That's where muscle memory comes in. Practice saying "no" to people before you find yourself in a tricky situation, doing multiple reps just like a gym workout until it's second nature for you.

Saying "no" to improve your focus as an organization takes longer, as it means spending time to get clear on your core purpose and ensure that everything and everyone aligns with it. That said, the payoff is absolutely worth it, in improved engagement, productivity, capacity and fulfillment.

You can start practicing your focus right now, working on just one thing for short bursts to build up stamina. If you need a little help staying on task for an hour or two, check out Caveday to get just-in-time support to do deep work. And if you want to know more about how to say "no", check out this HBR article. Or get in touch to see how I can help you deepen your focus and your impact.

What is saying yes to everyone costing you?