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Reframe Your NO into YES

If you have spent any time with me so far, you know that i spend a lot of time talking about the WHY. It is the most important question, no matter what the subject. Saying “No” is no different. Before we talk about the different approaches one can take to saying “no”, i think its important to set your mind up to know exactly why it is so important to have that confrontation in the first place. the fact is, saying “no” is one of the foundational pillars of productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Our lives, brains, and surroundings are full packed with stuff. Stuff to do, stuff to read, stuff to think about, stuff to watch. Stuff stuff stuff. And tasks abound all around us. What should we do. Or what should we do more. I wish i spent more time reading, more time with my kids, sleep more, cook healthier. Time is a finite resource and we lose more and more everyday. We literally cannot do everything. We must, must, MUST choose. And in order to say yes to the right things, we need to say NO to a lot.

Success Says NO

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything." - Warren Buffett

The 25 and 5

Step 1. List the top 25 things you would like to accomplish

Step 2. Rank them by importance

Step 3. Draw a line under the 5th item

The top 5 become your YES list. Everything in your life should revolve around that list. And making progress on those goals. Nothing really revolutionary here, but the magic really happens below the line.

The 20 below that line become the NO list. You will not under any circumstance work on those 20 items. You will not think about them, you will not push them forward, you will not setup meetings to discuss them. You will stay away from them completely. This is how winners win. This is how the so-so, become giants. It is not by grasping at every straw of opportunity that blows by in the wind. It is about intentional focus away from anything that is not your main goal.

A nice visual…. But…

This list of 25 and 5 is a great idea, it adds some clarity into our lives, but when it gets down to brass tax we all know there are more than five things in my life that i need to focus on to survive. Biologically i need to sleep, eat, drink, poop. Dang that’s four right there and i haven’t even showered yet! So how does this five things really manifest in real life.

First some clarity, if you read about the how i do annual planning you will be familiar with the life balance wheel. The wheel is divided up into slices like family, health, finances, career, etc.

The purpose of this exercise is to fill out each slice of pie based on how fulfilled you feel in each category. A starkly unbalanced wheel will inevitably lead to breakdown. But not all slices of the pie (wheel? pie? Whatever) need to be worked on at the same time. We can focus on the few that we feel need the most attention. This does not mean we can 100% ignore all other categories. There must be some minimum level of work put into each. I like the term ‘maintenance calories’ which is borrowed from the body building term meaning, how many calories you need to consume to support exactly how much activity you do each day. Brought back to the wheel i use it to mean, how many calories do you need to spend to keep your score exactly where it is today. No more, no less. Maintenance.

Another helpful way to think about this is the “glass and rubber ball” analogy from The ONE Thing by Gary Keller. Paraphrasing a little bit, but imagine each one of those pie slices as a ball, and you are juggling all of them in the air at once. Trying to make sure none of them drop to the ground. Some of the those balls are made of rubber, work, finances, education, career. If those balls get dropped, its not great, but they will bounce on hte ground, you can pick them back up and keep going. But some balls are made of glass, family, health, significant other. If these balls get dropped, the impact can break them, chip them, or sometimes even shatter them completely. So from this view we can see that some balls we need to pay much closer attention to than others.

Bringing it all back to 25/5

There are a few areas where we strive to improve, excel, advance. And there are other areas where we defend, maintain, fortify. The 5, are the first area, where we strive to better. But while we strive forward in those areas, we cannot forget the glass ball areas. These must be maintained and stay healthy, otherwise we may never recover them.

What in the world does this have to do with NO man?? What are you saying?

Ok ok, so a long journey i admit. But here is the thing i am trying to get at. When we say NO to anything, remember it is really because we are trying to say YES to something else. We are trying to be purposeful with our time and say YES to what is truly important to us. When we frame NO like that, it suddenly becomes much clearer and somewhat easier to do.

Perhaps a more potent way to think about it is, as we say yes to all of those little things that come in throughout our day, we are actually saying NO to our top 5! Remember that you cannot do everything. Perhaps a small portion of the requests are part of the maintenance calories, sure. But a large portion are not, they are just requests that we didn’t feel we had a good enough reason to say no, so we said yes.

So when we think about saying no, we should remember what we are really saying yes. We are saying yes with intention to our priorities. And no to everything else.

Different flavors of no

Because saying no is really about saying yes, really what we are talking about here is filtering your inbox. We need to sift through our incoming task in such a way that you are saying yes to your important tasks more often, and only deviating on things that are needed to keep those glass balls in the air. There are a lot of different filters that help us to say no. I tried to create the broadest categories:

  1. Not Ever - No we shouldn’t be doing this at all

  2. Not Now - No we shouldn’t be doing this right now

  3. Not Us - No our team shouldn’t own this

  4. Not Me - No I shouldn’t be the one to do this

You should try to put all incoming tasks through these filters before agreeing to do them.

Not ever

In my experience, this first one is actually usually the easiest, though it is probably the most infrequent. If there is something that you feel so strongly about to say, no we should never do this thing (for me its running a marathon), then that conviction is easier to say, no i dont think this is right, i dont think it will ever be right. No, just no. My friend asked me if I wanted to do the David Goggins 4x4x48 challenge with him. A grueling running challenge where you run 4 miles every 4 hours for 48 hours (which is 48 miles and just shy of 2 marathons). Even though i am a Goggins fan, that was probably one of the easiest things I had to say no to this week. Nope, no way, not ever. That’s not me. Simple.

In terms of the workplace, and designing engineering projects, my experience has been that if my conviction is very high that we should not do something, then it is likely clear or at least very understandable to everyone else in the room as well. In engineering, 100% certainty is very rare, everything has trade-offs. If a design is so off the wall and/or violates core principles or common sense, then saying no is pretty easy and requires little discussion or debate.

If a person or group refuses to accept no as an answer then you have a few options.

  1. Escalate, either to your boss, to their boss, to the next highest decision making committee or review board.

  2. Approach your argument from another angle. If you are not getting through to someone, then try to explain it in another way or gather more information to prove your point.

  3. Double check yourself. If they are not budging, no matter how much information you are throwing at them, take a step back and look at yourself. Make sure you are absolutely certain they are not correct, or at least parts of their argument are not correct. You may be being the stubborn one.

  4. Disagree and commit. If this isn’t morally or ethically wrong, and you cannot come to an agreement, or you are not in a position to sway the decision. Then sometimes you must just accept that you will never agree, but trust that each of you are smart and capable and want what is best. Choose left or right, and commit to help each other achieve the desired outcome.

Side Note: Fortunately for me (unfortunate for this article), I am lucky to work in a highly collaborative and healthy environment. Rarely do things get pushed forward only to satisfy the ego of one individual. Because i have little to no experience with that situation, i unfortunately can’t write much about it. If my son were to ask me about it, i suppose i would tell him to get clear on his convictions. The clearer you are on your reason and purpose, the better case you will make for whatever it is you know you need to say no to.

Not Now

Ok so if a task makes it past the first filter, we believe that it should get accomplished, does it need to be done now?

I find that people do not utilize this response enough. Yes i can do that, but not right now. I think we often abandon our 5 so easily to help others because their tasks seem more fun, easier, less stressful. So when questions or requests come in for others we immediately drop what we are doing, to say yes to others. They could have easily waited an hour or a day or even a week. But we decided to get it done for them right away anyways.

Get in the habit when people ask you for something, to clarify the timeline.

  • “sure, when do you need it by?”

  • “no problem, i can look at that tomorrow”

  • “Yeah i am hammering on XYZ right now and i gotta get it done, but i can start that thing right after”

  • “Next week looks packed, mind if we meet up the week after?”

  • If the ask is from your boss or someone that controls your timelines, you can ask, “sure i can do that, i am currently working on abc and xyz, which is higher priority?”

This will help clarify urgency for you and the other party. It will also signal to the other person that you were not sitting around waiting for them to ask you to do something. You are busy and your time is valuable to you.

Not us

Leadership is about seeing the forest, not just the trees. Sometimes we get so focused on how to accomplish something, no one stops to ask if we are even the right team to do it. In my company there are many groups of engineers all with specific charters and specialities. Many requests come to my team and my answer is simply that we are not the correct team to tackle that problem. This isn’t to get out of work or to use as an excuse to push work elsewhere. This is in alignment of the company’s best interest. It would be better for everyone if Team X did that project, not us. They will do it better, or more robustly, and our customers will be happier.

If your team is overloaded, ask yourself these questions

  • What are the core competencies of your team?

  • What things are you doing that could be outsourced to another team or another company?

  • What tasks can be automated to save everyone on the team time and energy?

Not me (delegation)

This one takes balls. And sometimes creativity. This one belongs to true owners and leaders (note that leadership and ownership are a mindset, not a title). Yes i agree we should do this thing, yes i agree it needs to be done now, not later. But i dont think i am the right person to do this. Here is why,

  • Skill set

  • Other priorities

  • Opportunity for others

This one takes guts, cause you already admitted that this task is important, and you also admitted it is urgent. But as a leader and an owner, you have got to be able to make sure things get done without doing them yourself. You have got to empower your team to fill in all the gaps necessary to deliver.

Many folks that I talk to, feel guilty and/or arrogant when trying to delegate. If we go back to the 25/5, we realize that delegation is not about trying to get out of work. It is having clarity on your 5 top items and why they are your highest priority. They provide the most value you could possibly deliver to the company. Therefore if something comes in that is not on that list, it is by definition less valuable for you to do. Mostly our current default is, “yeah i can do that”, until our important thing has a deadline, then we start saying no. We need to flip this behavior so that we more often work on our list of 5, and then in last resort work on the “maintenance calories”.

Opportunity for others

Every question you answer helps to solidify the knowledge into your brain. Every time you tackle a challenge you gain more skills. And every responsibility you take on, you feel more ownership for your work and your company. These things are all wonderful opportunities for the younger members on your team to excel in their own careers. They need opportunity and achievement to gain experience and skill set. Delegating small tasks to them may cost you some time in the short term as you guide them through it, but in the long run will lead to a more effective well rounded team.

Set expectations

Be transparent with your team and let them disagree with you. “Hey here is everything i was planning on doing. This is why i think my current tasks are more important than this new item. Do folks agree? What is on everybody else’s plate right now? Can we see if anyone has something that is less important than this new thing?”

This little powwow can help clarify who is really the best person to take on the task, and it really doesn’t take long. It also has a side benefit that if folks are not clear on team priorities, then this meeting will reveal and address it frequently.

The Help Boomerang

I like to use something called the boomerang. It takes a little bit of guts, but not as much as flat out no. Basically when someone asks you for something, think about who else on the team might be able to take it off your plate. Tell the asker, “hey I’m swamped right now”, this is not a lie, you have other priorities, “can you go check with Tim, or Fred, and see if they can help. If they are booked too then lemme know and ill definitely help you out”. Easy. This allows you to give opportunity for another member to help, it frees up your time, but it also gives them the option to come back if they are still stuck. Helpful, but not distracted.


It should be our default response to say no to things that are not on our list of main goals, with the expectation (internal and external), that you may still have to do it anyways. What i mean is, when tasks come in, you first say, no i am working on XYZ which seems more important, BUT if no one else can do this thing, and it needs to get done, then i will get it done. The default is no, and we use tactics discussed to try and stay focused as possible. But the result is that we get done whatever needs to get done. That is ownership. The more we can focus on our goals, and remove everything else as distractions, the more successful we will be.

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