The Power of NO

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There’s been a lot written about the “Power of YES” – the belief that life is best experienced through an attitude of affirmation.  And I agree with that, in most instances.  But I’m an equally firm believer in the Power of NO.

Stephen Covey

The Power of NO is really a matter of focus.  Stephen Covey crystallized the concept for me when I first read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People nearly 20 years ago.  Mr. Covey wrote:

You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage – pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically – to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.

The most successful professionals I know are masters of the Power of NO. They’re very deliberate and selective about how they invest their time. And I’d attribute many of the successes I’ve enjoyed in 14 years of consulting and 7 years of client-side brand-building to this concept.

It certainly helps to know whom you endeavor to serve (and how, and why). With purpose, vision, objectives and strategy in hand, saying “no” to distractions – and that’s what they are, really – becomes quite easy.

Some Things You May Learn by Applying the Power of No:

  • All clients and consumers are not created equal.  Some are not worth pursuing or retaining.
  • Not every meeting requires your presence.
  • Not every networking request is worth your time.
  • That professional organization you belong to?  It may be more social than productive.
  • A vague request for “just a bit of your time” almost always reflects an intent to waste it. If the requester can’t clearly articulate the purpose of a meeting, say no. If the requester is an unknown quantity, say no emphatically.
  • Don’t take sales calls to be polite or to get them off your back. That just wastes the time of two people.
  • Some of your brand-building activities are simply unproductive. Analyze such activities rigorously and often. Keep the ones that work and say no to the rest.
  • Though Marissa Meyer of Yahoo! disagrees, you don’t need to be in the office every day. Say no to the commute and the office distractions every few weeks in favor of productive, deck-clearing work-from-home days.
  • Say no to processes that don’t work. Find effective ones or do without. “That’s how it’s always been done around here” is usually a lazy excuse begging for a “no.”
  • Some people lift you up. Others drag you down. Say no to the latter. Life is short.
For more on “Yes, and,” read Tina Fey’s “Bossypants.” It’s terrific.

As a student of improv, I’m also a firm believer in the value of not only saying “Yes,” but saying “Yes, and,” even while I also frequently say “No.” I don’t see these two concepts as contradictory, but instead as very compatible. When I say “No” wisely, that frees up time and energy to vigorously say “Yes, and” to those goals to which I commit.

So don’t give in to guilt, habit, your desire to be liked, or whatever it is that makes you say yes when you know you should say no. You can’t do it all in your short time on this earth, and saying no to the unimportant will propel you toward the meaningful.

What have you learned to say NO to over the years?  What advice would you give those who struggle with the Power of NO?  Please share your thoughts in a comment below.

About Matthew Fenton: Matthew helps challenger brands to focus, grow and win.  Since founding his consultancy, Three Deuce Branding, in 1997, he’s helped hundreds of brands to achieve “brand clarity.”  His consulting services and speaking engagements help brands to focus on what matters through positioning, strategy and ideation.  Contact Matthew here.  He calls Chicago home.

Copyright 2013 – Matthew Fenton.  All Rights Reserved.  You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the About Matthew Fenton section.