Now More Than Ever, We Need to Say “No”

Mar 25, 2021 | Productivity, The ONE Thing | 0 comments

When we’re stressed, it can feel like the easiest thing to do is to say yes. But in a lot of cases, it just makes everything more difficult.

Saying yes means keeping everyone happy. It means not being the focus of disappointment. It also means taking on the responsibility of having to figure out how to squeeze just one more thing on an already packed schedule. And that sometimes means forsaking the things that are most important to us. In the long-run, it’s important to take a hard, objective look at what we’ll be saying “yes” to and say “no” to the things that run counter to our ONE Thing.

There’s a quote floating around on the net that’s often attributed to Warren Buffett where he says, “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Unfortunately, we took a deep dive into newspaper archives and shareholder letters (the place where Buffett is often most quotable) and couldn’t find a record of Buffett saying that. However, what we did find was an example of him living it in the postscript of a 2010 letter:

“Please turn down all proposals for me to speak, make contributions, intercede with the Gates Foundation, etc. Sometimes these requests for you to act as intermediary will be accompanied by “It can’t hurt to ask.” It will be easier for both of us if you just say “no.” As an added favor, don’t suggest that they write or call me. Multiply 76 businesses by the periodic “I think he’ll be interested in this one” and you can understand why it is better to say no firmly and immediately.”

For most people, we’re very keen to examine the consequences of saying “no.” But we fail to see that every time someone says yes to something, that means they’re saying no to something else. In the case of Buffett here, he shows us how quickly saying “yes” can compound into a larger problem. Each yes has the potential to start a chain reaction leading to another yes and another and another—culminating in a complete loss for time!

When we’re stressed, like when dealing with the fallout and aftermath of a global pandemic, it can be tempting to want to take the easy route. That means giving a passive “no,” or a “maybe,” or even a reluctant “yes” to things that run counter to our priority. But by leaving those doors open, we allow for unnecessary things to creep back into our lives and open more doors. When faced with a decision, and with little resources to spare, we need to be strong and answer affirmatively “NO” to the things that have the potential to veer us off track.

Yes Bears a Little More Weight Than No

Under normal circumstances most people experience some anxiety of loss aversion when faced with a yes or no choice. When we approach that fork in the road, we account for everything we might lose if we answer one way or another, and often opt for the status-quo as a result.

This often leads us to naturally being more critical of answering one way or another. If the status-quo is to say “yes” and keep everyone happy, we’ll look at saying “no” more critically. If the status-quo means saying “no” so we can avoid shaking things up for the better, then we’ll look at “yes” more critically.

We have to try to overcome these natural tendencies if we want to have more control over our time and our future. The simple act of taking each potential avenue seriously gives us more confidence in our answer if it goes against the grain. As a rule of thumb, we need to treat the consequences of saying “yes” with a little more severity than our consequences of saying “no.” The reason being, we can often live with the regret of having said “no” to something, but we can’t always survive the consequence of having said “yes.”

Back in his 2007 letter, Buffett gave us an example of this in practice. In the letter he compared a series of investments.  The first was an instance of him saying “no” and regretting his decision. He was set to purchase a property for $35 million, and despite having all of facts pointing toward yes, he declined. In only a year, that property had skyrocketed in value to $800 million. Yet, in the following paragraphs he remarked that this instance of “no” wasn’t his worst moment.

That moment was championed by an instance of him saying “yes” to investing in a shoe business he bought for $433 million in stock. As he put it, the advantage he saw in the business evaporated over a few years. And by using stock, he compounded his error. Instead of making a $400 million mistake, he actually wound up making a $3.5 billion mistake. As he put it, it was the worst deal he had ever made.

Those losses are compounded when you think about the hidden consequence of saying yes to something, which is that it means saying no to something else that could have been a better opportunity. Not only did his yes lead to him take billions in losses, it meant that he was left without billions to invest into other worthwhile ventures. That single yes closed the door on a world of possibilities.

Never underestimate the impact of saying yes!

Maintain Clarity and Spend Your Time Wisely

Saying no is made easier when you have absolute clarity on your priority. With absolute clarity on that ONE thing that will make everything else easier or unnecessary, you’re given a simple benchmark to throw every future decision up against.

Like we say in The ONE Thing, the first step is often to delay—or push back your answer so you can do what matters most in the moment. Even running through the processes of answering someone holds the potential to detract us from our most important work. Don’t let that happen to you. Instead, push it to the side, and inform the person who is asking that you’ll be answering them later.

Take control from the get-go.

After you’ve used your time in the best way possible, and you now have time to dedicate to answers, make a point to put each answer to the test. With your ONE Thing in mind ask a series of simple questions:

  • Will saying yes serve your ONE thing?
  • Will it serve my ONE thing more than anything else?
  • Will saying it take time away from other more important areas of your life?
  • Have I fully explored the consequences of saying yes?

Depending on how you answer these questions, you might find that your time is better spent elsewhere. And if that’s the case, you’ll have a perfectly logical reason for saying no. More importantly, you will have saved yourself the hassle of letting the process of answering the question interfere with your current priority.


What’s your strategy for saying no in these stressful times? Join a community of like-minded people and share your strategies for saying no on our Facebook page!