Saying no can make or break your business. After all, building a company is just as much as what you don’t do as what you do do.
Saying no can also make or break your life. I wouldn’t be able to make my marriage work without ruthless protection of my time.
Unfortunately, saying no is like dieting; we all want to do it, but few pull it off.
Most “how to say no” advice is like most dieting advice: super tactical, common sense, and non-motivational. They’ll tell you HOW but not WHY (except to say, “just do the one most important thing and forget the rest” which isn’t actually helpful). They don’t offer tasty, addicting alternatives to fight off the cravings, and so you’re left thinking, “yeah, I should really say no to some more things…” instead of actually getting out there and NOing it up.
Through careful self-examination, I’ve found powerful reasons to say no that motivate me to NO all the time, and I’d like to share them with you all!
Now, I’m not going to give any tactics on HOW to say no - just Google it - instead I’m going to give you reasons WHY to say no that you might not have thought of; things you’d rather be doing with your time that are both better for you and better for your business.
Overwhelm Makes You Mistreat Others
For me, this is the biggest.
Salsify went from 25 to over 75 employees in 2015, closed a B round, moved into new offices, and grew our customer base even more than those numbers. It was a great year, and boy was it busy.
I started noticing a few months ago that I was snapping at employees. Actually I didn’t notice - I was given the feedback from a couple long-time employees that some of the newer team members were super intimidated by me, which is strange. I’m a towering 5’6”, generally quick to joke around, and have never been described as intimidating by anyone. So something was definitely up.
Once made aware, I started noticing it myself. I was snapping at people, because my schedule was totally packed. I’d have both a ton on my plate to accomplish personally and a ton of customer calls and internal meetings, and the result is that I’d have a short fuse for people who didn’t instantly “get” something.
Which is totally unacceptable.
So I started being much more ruthless about what I would say “yes” to. I became less busy very quickly, and now when someone asks for help I can be present, patient, helpful, and jovial, and everyone’s better of. Which is so much more fun for me.
Reason to say no #1: being less busy makes it easier to treat everyone else the way they deserve, which is more fun for you and for them.
Free Time Makes It Easy to Say Yes (and Have More Fun)
As I write this, I’m traveling for business and staying at a Sheraton that is actually pretty nice. I had a day of meetings on site with customers and returned to the hotel around 4:30pm.
It used to be that when I traveled, I’d get back to the hotel with 10 things to get done before going to sleep. I’d get some room service and just crush tasks. And I’d do this for a week or two at a time. I’d return to Boston completely wiped out, not wanting to talk to my wife, go running, or do anything. I would collapse.
Today, I hit up the gym, went for a run listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast, and then took advantage of the totally serviceable Sheraton hot tub for a bit. I have a 7am flight out tomorrow AM, and when I get home I’m going to a normal human being up for anything!
There are so many examples like this at work.
One that probably hits home for most of you: I would eat lunch at my desk all the time. I still do it a lot, but since my schedule is much more open when someone asks me to lunch I say YES now instead of NO, which is great!
Another example: we have a bunch of awesome new sales reps that are learning our product, our customer stories, and the space. They are role playing the pitch and studying like crazy.
A little while ago, Jason & Steve started doing call prep with all the new reps before they jumped on intro calls with prospects. They would go over any research done on the prospect and then role play the Salsify pitch and the like. I couldn’t do this at first, because I had too much going on.
Which really sucked because, to me, call preps are ridiculously fun and useful. I get to know new employees - which is getting harder as we scale - I get to see how the messaging is translating to sales, and I get to learn a ton about potential customers that I never knew. Seriously good, enjoyable use of my time right now. Much more useful than many of the things on my TODO list.
So I cleared out a bunch of less useful activities from my schedule, and now I get to do the call preps several times a week.
Taking this to a really inspiring extreme is Derek Sivers’s wonderful piece: No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or no.
Reason to say no #2: it allows you to say “yes” when you really want to!
Empty Space Breeds Inspiration
Neil Gaiman, one of my very favorite authors, famously has a habit of making himself as bored as possible in order to write. The strategy is, essentially, that if he literally has nothing to do he’ll write a book simply to keep himself entertained, almost as a defense mechanism. Brilliant.
I’ve also found that blank time - going for a job, taking a walk, sitting outside - is where most of my great ideas come from.
For example, last week I read Anu Hariharan’s excellent presentation on Network Effects. Afterwards, because I was hungry and my wife was on call, I decided to try to bake myself some sardines (DM me if you want the recipe; it’s simple and delicious). I didn’t put any music on, didn’t have the TV on, was just chopping up some onions, and BOOM! Really great right-field idea relating to network effects that was completely new.
Related: the overscheduling and overstructure of today’s top schools terrifies me.
Reason to say no #3: blank space breeds creativity.
Saying NO Won’t Hurt You OR Your Business (A Homework Assignment)
Reading all this I’m sure you’re thinking, “sure, sure, sounds nice, but seriously all this shit on my calendar is there for a reason and must get done.”
Sometimes that is true, I give you that. There are times when you just have to swim as hard as you can upstream.
However, I’ll bet that it’s much more often not true. Building a company is a marathon, not a sprint, and winning doesn’t require 10 years of 100-hour weeks.
Try the following out for a week. Every day, write down everything you accomplished that day, and take a screenshot of your day’s meetings. Also, write down anything else that ate up time that day. At the end of the week, circle all the things that* if you had skipped* everything would have been fine. Those things were not worth your time. You would have been much more useful as a free agent available to supercharge anyone or anything at the drop of a hat, with empty time to think and reflect, and with more time to say HELL YES! to the things that matter most to you in your life.
The only real tactic I’ll give you in this article is to ask: “am I needed for this?” If the answer is NO or even “it would be nice to have you there” I’m out.
Reason to say no #4: it’ll be fine if you do.
Get out there, #noitup (yes I’m trying to make that happen), and have a more productive, fulfilling day.