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Just Say No

Clarity about what is essential fuels us with the strength to say no to the nonessentials.

– Greg McKeown

Two years ago, while on my end-of-year reflection trip, I read Greg McKeown’s Essentialism. What a great book! In it, McKeown discusses how to identify your essential projects, activities, and belongings, so that you can then identify (and eliminate) the nonessential ones.

Once you know what is not necessary, you figure out how to get rid of it. Similar to how we eliminated projects that didn’t align with our hoshin plan, we need to get rid of activities and things that are not essential to implement it. One of McKeown’s admonitions is “if it isn’t a ‘hell yes’ then it’s a ‘hell no’.”

I was able to convince several people at my current company to read Essentialism, so we’ve used that last statement on many occasions. When interviewing candidates for a position, we ask ourselves if he or she is a “hell yes.” If we don’t have that level of enthusiasm, then it’s back to the applicant pool. The same goes for potential partnerships, new projects, and equipment. Yes, it’s somewhat subjective, and we do use more quantitative analyses when appropriate, but that last gut call is valuable.

Another key revelation from the book was on how to say no to requests in a way that conveys your time is valuable. If you explain the reasons why you cannot help someone and do so in an authentic manner, requestors will get over their disappointment and you will still have their respect. Perhaps the hardest thing to do, but something that can really improve productivity, is to say “no” to things we want to do—even to good and valuable projects and activities. This forces us to prioritize, thereby focusing our time, resources, and attention on what really matters.

I have used this concept with considerable success over the past year. I’ve turned down speaking engagements I wasn’t interested in, collaborations that I didn’t think would go anywhere (in the past, I might have tried anyway), and meetings where I was invited but didn’t really need to be there. This has freed up a lot of my time and reduced the stress and drudgery of having to do things that didn’t add value, allowing me to invest my limited time more wisely. Sure, I still use a lot of my time to help others, but I now do it more methodically (and, in my opinion, better and more mindfully).