Re-framing no

We often face great difficulty saying no to new opportunities. This is typically due to one of 2 reasons –
1. These opportunities offer clearer short term rewards – e.g., a bit of extra money or instant gratification
2. We don’t like saying no – we prefer to be liked vs. attempting to be respected for our choices

There is a link between the two reasons because if the rewards of saying no are blindingly obvious, it is hard to not say no. It is when the rewards are fuzzy that it becomes harder to make the like-respect trade-off. The problem with this is that we often neglect the most important things in favor of short-term wins. Clayton Christensen often talked about how it takes parents nearly two decades to see the results of the time invested in their kids. I think that is the case for most great relationships. They take consistent investments for a long period of time. They degrade similarly as well. We don’t see it coming.. until it does.

An idea that could help make it easier to say no would be to re-frame it and think about what you are saying yes to. By saying no to answering email in the evening, we would be saying yes to quality time with our loved ones, for example. By saying no to that extra project, we’d be saying yes to sleep, exercise, and better personal health. By doing this, we pay attention to the real trade-offs.

And, where there is awareness of trade-offs, there is likely a good decision that is being made.


Every time you say a yes, you are saying no. Opportunity cost – a simple concept in theory.

One of the best practitioners of opportunity cost that I know of is Seth Godin. There are 2 examples that I think about from time to time.

The first was when I emailed Seth asking him if he would be willing to do an interview. His response, as is the norm, was quick and straight to the point. He said “Sorry, I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.” I loved the words – “I wouldn’t be able to do it justice.” Exquisitely chosen. Clearly, he’s had a lot of practice at this.

The second example was when I thought about Seth’s approach to blogging. He just shows up, posts, and leaves. I think he’s got an automated script that shares his posts on Twitter and Facebook. He doesn’t engage on either platform and has turned off comments on his blog. And, yet, his blog is as successful as it gets. It’s not that Seth doesn’t engage – he’s as approachable as anybody. It’s just that he takes a clear stand on where he will and won’t engage.

Both of these examples are representative of Seth’s approach to time and work. This may not work for you and me because his priorities and approach is likely to be different from ours. But, his approach is telling. I learnt 3 things from the exchanges I had with Seth –

1. When you are saying yes, you are always saying no. Always. You can’t do everything. You will piss a few people off. And you just need to accept that.

2. Understand your priorities. If you want to make a positive difference in the world, then cultivate the discipline to say no to projects that don’t contribute to that. It begins with your priorities. Always.

3. Before you say yes, ask yourself if you will truly be able to do it justice. If the answer is no, don’t say it. It might seem like you’re making the other person happy. But, that’s just the short term. It’s not going to end well.

And, one last thing – if it helps at all, find people who do this well and take inspiration from them. Whenever I think of priorities and saying no, I think of Seth.

Thanks Seth.