As an achiever, I’m guessing you tend to say “yes” to most requests – whether it’s to take on more responsibility, interview a candidate for someone else’s team, or take the red-eye flight back to the office to meet with your boss.

Most of the time, saying yes is great and clearly the right thing to do. At least in the near-term…

Is your “yes” habit “worth it”?

The question is: what happens when you step back and look at your “yes” habit from a longer term perspective?

Do you really need to say yes to everything?

Is it serving you well?

Has it been “worth it”?

This is something I’m asking myself right now (and yes, I happen to be someone with a pretty ingrained “yes” habit. In fact, I’ve already used the word “yes” seven times in this article so far!).

My revelation

It all became clear to me during our weekly team call this week. We always start by going around the table (figuratively as we’re located in different places) and telling the group about something positive that’s happened over the prior week. It puts us in a positive frame of mind and the whole meeting is more productive as a result.

We had 3 positive items all revolving around saying “no”:

  • One team member shared that she stuck to her guns and continued to say no to an opportunity to work with the CEO of a startup (sometimes you have to keep saying no – people can be persistent!). While it was flattering to be asked, it would have been a huge time commitment in an ambiguous situation.
  • That led to another team member saying that he, too, had turned down a new project after days of soul searching. After saying no, he has felt lighter – as though a great weight was lifted from his chest.
  • I then recalled a positive experience saying no last week as well. I told a friend that I couldn’t attend her evening book launch, which would have involved a 3-hour round-trip journey when I was already tired. While I didn’t like saying no to a friend, I was able to be at my best for my workshop the next morning.

My revelation was that in essence, each of us had benefited greatly from just saying “no”!

And if we had said “yes” instead, we would be paying the price long after the initial joy of pleasing someone else.

When to say “no”

For those of us whose default inclination is to say “yes”, especially if there’s a juicy challenge involved, the question is when to say “no”.

Here are a few thoughts.

Start by asking yourself 3 questions:

  1. How will this further my goals or mission?
    If there is no link, whether direct or indirect, then it’s a candidate for “no”. For example, I love to learn and am inclined to sign up for courses, attend lectures and buy books that spark my interest ranging from neuroscience to knitting. My incremental learning time is better spent on neuroscience as it supports my mission to help achievers fulfill their potential, while knitting does not.
  1. To what extent is this consistent with my values?
    If an opportunity is linked to your goals, you may still be better off saying “no” if the way they’re going about it is in conflict with your personal values. For example, your goal may be to serve more clients, but if you’re a pacifist, you may not want to be hired by a company that makes firearms.
  1. Will I regret this later?
    Roll the clock forward and do a gut check on whether you will experience regret by saying “yes” versus “no”. Often, regret comes from having said yes to something and then finding it prevents you from doing something else that would have been more important or useful. That’s the concept of “opportunity cost”.

    Of course the opposite could be true as well – saying “no” and missing a golden opportunity. But we have only so many hours a day, so be careful not to underestimate the cost of taking on too much. Either way, since we don’t get to have a “do over” in life, it’s important to live in a way that we have no regrets.

Figure out your “Worth It” Equation

Before you say yes, make sure it’s worth it for you. After all, no one else can have your best interests at heart in the way that you do. That’s where I’ve found the concept of a “worth it” equation to be helpful.

GIVE ≤ GET – Friction Costs

It’s not a precise mathematical formula, but it does help to make sure you think through all the aspects so you’ll know when to say “no”.

What this formula says is that what you GIVE (or put at risk or use up) in taking on an opportunity must be less than or equal to what you GET in return after adjusting for any negative repercussions, which I call “Friction Costs”.

Here are some examples of what’s in each element of the “Worth It” Equation:

GIVE GET Friction Costs
  • Time
  • Energy
  • Money
  • Reputation
  • Further my goals
  • Increase resources at my disposal (money, people, time, energy)
  • New experiences
  • New knowledge
  • New or stronger relationships or connections
  • Greater well-being, joy, peace of mind
  • Aggravation, hassle factor
  • Complexity
  • Knock-on effects (less time with family, upsets other people, tie-in to future obligations, etc.)
  • Opportunity cost (of not being able to do something else with your time, energy, money)

Consult with others if you’re not sure

Find people you trust and who can shed some light on the situation. Sometimes that added perspective from an independent yet knowledgeable party can shed light on whether the upside is as great as you think it is, and whether the downsides are as onerous.

At a minimum, they can share their own experiences and provide you with good questions to ask in order to get more information before you say “yes”… or “no”.

Then revisit your “Worth It” Equation.

Look at the larger pattern

Sometimes each incremental “yes” can make sense, but if you step back and look at the larger pattern of the things you’ve taken on, it’s clear that on a cumulative basis they’ve taken you off course from your main mission.

I know an extremely high achiever who is well known in his field, and his default is to say yes to every request that he can squeeze into his busy calendar. Come do a speech for our group – “yes!” Review this important proposal we’re making – “yes!” Fly to Australia for our ceremony (he lives 8,000 miles away) – “yes!”

The more he said “yes”, the more requests he received. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. It took a health scare to get him to start saying “no”.

And more importantly, he likely would have achieved even more of his own goals by trimming back on the marginal opportunities he said “yes” to. The ones where the “GET – Friction Costs” were just a little bit greater than what he had to GIVE.

So when you’re a recovering “yes”-er, what’s the best way to phrase the “no”?

How to Say “No”

In my experiences, there are two kinds of “no’s”: the Absolute No, and the No With A Twist.

Absolute No:

When you’ve determined that this is a definite no, not only for you but also for anyone else on your team, then the best thing is to make it clean and clear. You don’t want to give others false hope.

That said, it’s always about the how, and you can do this without making enemies even while you’re saying no.

The key is to say it “with love and grace”, a term my basketball playing family learned at PGC Basketball Camp. That means saying it in a kind and well-meaning tone rather than abruptly.

For example, “Thank you for thinking of me for this project. I really appreciate it. However, this is not a good fit for the direction I’m heading so I’m going to say no.” And if you know others who would be great for the opportunity, you can add, “Would you like me to suggest others for you to consider?”

No With A Twist:

When you want to leave the door open because there are circumstances under which this could be a good opportunity, whether for you or someone else, then say no and then add terms under which you would say yes.

For example, “I can’t meet but I could do a call”, or “I’m not the right person for this project because of ABC, but please do keep me in mind for XYZ – I’d love to have the opportunity to work with your group”, or “I can’t go but would like to send a member of my team.”

Why we all must learn when (and how) to say “No”

Saying “no” when it’s warranted clears your time, energy and mind so you can focus on the things that will really move the needle for you. It’s the equivalent of clearing out the clutter in your closet or your office.

When you say “no” to the right things, you’ll have the luxury of being able to think, strategize and plan. And that will give you greater clarity on what matters so you can finally get the important (but not urgent) things done. Wouldn’t that feel great?

So, what will you say “no” to in your life? And how can you say it “with love and grace”?