8 Ways to Say 'No' So You Say 'Yes' to What Matters Most
Success hinges on knowing how to decline.
As an entrepreneur, your time and energy are in constant demand. If you’re not careful, too many “Yeses” to distractions and invitations—like coffee with no precise purpose—will sabotage your creative and productive output.
Accomplished entrepreneurs and members of The Oracles divulge how to say “No,” once and for all.
1. Run every opportunity through a litmus test.
In my early 20s, I thought that ambition meant leaving no stone unturned, no potential client, contact, or lead untapped. With maturity, I’ve realized:
- We have limited bandwidth—burnout is a real, crippling reality.
- Maintaining a balance of work, relationships, sports, and spiritual practice (for me, it’s meditation, yoga, and being in nature) is not only healthy but also results in higher quality work.
- Playing the long game and looking at the big picture is a better strategy than making decisions in the moment—which often come from a fear-based notion of missed opportunity.
I run every opportunity, request, meeting, or invite through a litmus test: Will this move the needle forward in my career? Is it a way to be of service? Does it meaningfully nurture me mentally and emotionally? Is it reciprocal for someone who's done something for me?
If it doesn’t fall into one of those categories, I politely pass so I can be available and fully present for an opportunity that does. —Molly Bloom, entrepreneur, author, and inspiration for the Oscar-nominated “Molly’s Game”; built the world’s most exclusive poker club for billionaire tycoons and Hollywood celebrities. Watch Molly’s Game on iTunes!
2. Create an auto-response that says ‘No’ for you.
I’ve tried to teach myself to say “No” to serve the bigger “Yes” over the years but found that my willingness to please others and agree to their non-stop barrage of requests is too deeply ingrained in my system.
Email has been the biggest offender; I give myself an “A" for effort, but an "F" for execution. Disgusted by my lack of discipline in this crucial area, I hired an assistant to say “No” for me and implemented this auto-response (which my daughter jokingly penned). This tactic works like magic, eliciting many delightful responses—which I ignore!
“Thanks so much for reaching out.
As a way to avoid electronic distractions, I'm no longer using my computer and will be hiding in a cave in the Himalayas. However, if you need to reach me, you can do so by carrier pigeon.
While carrier pigeons typically take weeks to reach Tibet, we have trained ours to achieve 20X what they thought possible … so, your message should arrive within a day.
But for those messages that are urgent and timely, I will use the mental toughness techniques learned during my time with the Aborigines — and get back telepathically. (Or you can contact email@example.com)
3. Only say ‘Yes’ to meetings with a clear and precise purpose.
Don’t be afraid to say “No;” I’ve learned it’s one of the best ways to set clear boundaries and focus on what’s truly important. It’s especially important to have an assistant who’s a gatekeeper of your time. A great assistant knows your schedule, priorities, and availability better than you.
As a CEO, I receive many offers and invitations to attend meetings with no clear, precise purpose. Although appreciative, time is our most precious commodity, so I have to wisely allocate it. If something doesn’t have a purpose, I simply can’t commit, so politely decline.
My secret to not disappointing people is to have a great support team. I rarely schedule a meeting I don’t want to take. My assistant gets as much information about the invitation or opportunity as possible, researching the person or company before presenting it to me, so we can respond accordingly.
Remember, there’s a difference between being busy and productive. When it comes to effective leadership, I choose productive. —Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman, a real estate brokerage empire with more than $27 billion in annual sales
4. Clone yourself to deliver value.
Here’s the paradox: Precise questions elicit thoughtful answers. However, most inbound requests are vague because people need your help with clarity; although you can help, answering every request is logistically unscalable.
Whenever I get an unfocused request or general inquiry, I respond with extreme specificity to create clarity. Instead of saying “No,” I refer people to a resource that answers similar general questions.
For example, over the years, I kept getting asked the same tactical real estate question disguised as a vague meeting request. After having the same conversation dozens of times, I stopped and created a comprehensive resource bundle.
My response now? “As you can imagine, I get this question often … so I spent numerous hours deconstructing this topic and created a blueprint for you on a video, podcast, and a detailed blog post. You will be unstoppable with this head start!”
Imagine the multitude of ways you could leverage a resource bundle: as a lead magnet, as part of your follow-up sequence, or a free gift when you’re speaking. Every opportunity to say “No” is a chance to deliver a thoughtful resource to someone who needs it, without actually being there. —Sharran Srivatsaa, angel investor; grew Teles Properties 10X in five years
5. Hire a ‘Director of No.’
The root of your business success is the fundamental ability to say “Yes” to what’s important and “No” to anything else. Two of the most important things I’ve learned are: one, “No” is a complete sentence and doesn’t need explaining, and two, when you say “Yes” to something, you’re declining something else.
Having a clear understanding of your priorities—and a calendar reflecting them—makes saying “No” easy, even if you experience difficulty saying it. An open calendar is dangerous; it should be filled with your most important tasks. It’s hard to say “Yes” when you don’t have any free time.
Finally, hiring an “offensive lineman” to screen my calls and respond to my emails proved to be invaluable. I jokingly referred to her as my “Director of No.” She knew my priorities and goals; her job was to keep my time and tasks protected from the trivial pursuits of others.
Remember, what’s usually missing from your business is a “Who,” not a “What.” —Shaun Rawls, lifelong entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Rawls Consulting
6. Lock in your calendar, unplug, and work in uninterrupted blocks.
Creating value and building a business only comes from focused attention and discipline. Although I've missed delightful social time, saying “No” to invites and distractions has enabled me to say “Yes" to extraordinary success. Here's how you can too:
One, establish your social calendar three months at a time. I use both Wall Calendar and DayRunner planner so I can make notes. I look at my invites, then determine which I’m unable to miss. Simultaneously, I look at my projects and put my social and business schedule together like a priceless jigsaw puzzle.
Two, break down your quarterly schedule into weeks. Time is your most precious resource; create boundaries for your week regarding what you want to complete. I fast-track my goals by being strategic with time management: I turn off my phone, disengage from checking email, and withdraw from social media to ensure that I complete projects in an easy, effortless, and efficient manner.
Three, carve out your time daily so you can work in blocks. I will usually block off eight to 10 hours without distractions. By doing this, it takes pressure off, knowing that I have time to enjoy my life. It also sustains my brain bandwidth for productive output. I work out when I want to work out. And eat when I want to eat. —Marina Rose, QDNA®, founder and developer of Quantum DNA Acceleration®, a revolutionary technique for quantum growth in health, life, and business; connect with Marina on Facebook
7. Practice turning people down.
The best way to get better at anything is practice! Start practicing these responses right now:
“No, thank you.”
“No, not at this time.”
“No, I can’t.”
“No, not interested.”
Decide now what you're willing to give up by saying “Yes”—productivity, money, family time, or exercise? Don’t wait until you’re asked. Say “No” to anything not adding value to your life or business. Rid yourself of the disease to please!
Also, be direct. Don’t say, “I’ll think about it,” if you’re not interested. Although we want to be agreeable and liked, as entrepreneurs, what we want most is to build our businesses. To succeed, you must surrender the illusion that you can make time for everything. You can’t. Say “No” to distractions; say “Yes” to your artistry. —Eileen Rivera, CEO of The Rivera Group; real estate coach, speaker, and licensed California realtor with over half a billion in sales
8. Decide quickly.
Asking for something is hard. Maybe it’s someone’s time, money, or opinion. I’ve been on both sides, so appreciate the effort when someone reaches out. Always help someone when you can. If you can’t, the best thing you can do for everyone is to give a quick answer.
Never drag someone along when you know the answer will be “No.” You’re giving false hope and wasting everybody’s time with unnecessary follow-ups. —Ken Lebovic, president of North Shore Holdings; built a real estate empire acquiring thousands of properties in 20 years
Want to share your insights like those above in a future column? If you’re an experienced entrepreneur, please get in touch here.
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