In the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown, he talks about how to get more things done and it’s about how to get the right things done. Below is an excerpt about how to say “No” to nonessential things.
The “No” Repertoire
Remember, Essentialists don’t say no just occasionally. It is a part of their regular repertoire. To consistently say no with grace, then, it helps to have a variety of responses to call upon. Below are eight responses you can put in your “no” repertoire.
- The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.
- The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now) But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”
E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.
- “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic Nonessentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no, and as a result she soon became a “go to” person. People would run up to her and say, “Could you help with X project?” Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes” when she was asked.
- Use e-mail bouncebacks. It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable “no” there is. People aren’t saying they don’t want to reply to your e-mail, they’re just saying they can’t get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book I set an e-mail bounceback with the subject line “In Monk Mode.” The e-mail said: “Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.-Greg.” And guess what? People seemed to adapt to my temporary absence and nonresponsiveness just fine.
- Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize” Saying no to a senior leader at work is almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.
For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”
I know a leader who received this response from a subordinate. There was no way he wanted to be responsible for disrupting this productive and organized employee, so he took the nonessential work project back and gave it to someone else who was less organized!
- Say it with humor. I recently was asked by a friend to join him in training for a marathon. My response was simple: “Nope!” He laughed a little and said, “Ah, you practice what you preach.” Just goes to show how useful it is to have a reputation as an Essentialist!
- Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to y” For example, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat but cannot throw your full weight behind.
I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person’s ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have.
- “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don’t really care if we’re the ones who help them-as long as they get the help.
Kay Krill, the CEO of Ann, Inc. (a.k.a. Ann Taylor and LOFT women’s clothing retailers), used to have a terrible time saying no to social invitations. As a result, she would end up at networking events she had no interest in attending. She would find herself going to office parties and regretting it the moment she got there.
Then one day one of her mentors came to her and told her that she had to learn to jettison the people and things of her life that just didn’t matter, and that doing so would allow her to put 100 percent of her energy into the things that had meaning for her. That advice liberated her. Now she is able to pick and choose. With practice, politely declining an invitation has become easy for her. Kay explains: “I say no very easily because I know what is important to me. I only wish that I learned how to do that earlier in my life,’?’
Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience. We are novices at “no.” Then we learn a couple of basic techniques. We make mistakes. We learn from them. We develop more skills. We keep practicing. After a while we have a whole repertoire available at our disposal, and in time we have gained mastery of a type of social art form. We can handle almost any request from almost anybody with grace and dignity. Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said to me, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.”’