In this post, we’re going to talk about one of the most powerful words in productivity. It’s also one that isn’t used enough. It’s a simple two-letter word. No.

It’s something that we often overlook because in today’s busy world we’re always saying yes to things. We need to learn to say no.

Do you find it hard to say no?

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with it. Especially when I was earlier in my career. As time went on I learned the power that it fetches to me.

I used to say yes to everything. I used to get overloaded. I used to have so much on my plate that I ended up delivering low-quality results. I also often delivered late. That helps nobody!

What I learned was that if I said no to things that other people could do, if I said no when I was already overloaded, already too busy, I was able to focus more on my work. I was able to deliver higher quality results. I was able to deliver in a more timely manner. This is where the word No comes in.

What I started doing, every time I received a work request I would stop and I would think about it. I’d think about what my workload was like. I would think about how it fits in with what I’m doing.

If I’m working on a project where I’m creating widget X, if the piece of work was an extension to that then it was sensible for me to do it. But if the request came in and it was to start working on widget Y that’s when I’d start to say No, I’d start to push back and say “well I’m already overloaded what do you want me to do ?”

It’s two simple questions you need to ask yourself. By taking these few seconds to think about it I was able to increase the quality of my work.

If I don’t say No

I would find I would become overloaded. Too much to do and not enough time to do it.

At one stage that led me to work 70 hours a week, for weeks on end. It severely impacted my life, my health, and my relationships with other people. I was finding that by spending most of my time working I wasn’t spending enough time to rest and relax. You need that downtime. You need to be able to step back, get some sleep, and do a fun activity. Just do something that isn’t working. If you don’t you’re going to burn yourself out and in the long term that helps no one.

I was making mistakes that I would normally pick up. They were creeping in. I could sit and look through pages and pages and miss all these mistakes. If I was rested, if I wasn’t overloaded, I would be picking them up.

That’s a massive impact on the quality of my work. The quality of my work that goes to customers. What are the customers going to think? They’re going to think “well they’re not very good at it!”

That’s going to impact your business results because if people don’t trust you, they’re not going to come back to you for further work.

Another impact I found, I was overloaded. To get the work done I ended up skipping steps. I cut out a lot of quality control. It made the work faster when I was doing it. But because I was skipping these steps I still needed to come back at some later stage to do them, so it slowed me down in the long run.

I also found that when I was looking for solutions I’d always go for the quick and dirty solution. The one you can do it quickly. Yes, it sort of works but long term it’s not very good. It’s not there to be maintained. Again I’m going to call out a lot of mistakes sneaking in. You would work so it fixes that one particular scenario rather than stepping back thinking about the solution and building something robust. Building something that can be used for a whole range of scenarios.

By being overloaded, by not saying No, I was delivering inefficient code.

I’ve already said that this led to me being tired. It made me grumpy. That damaged my relationships outside of work, and that’s not good for anybody.

We don’t want to be all about work. What’s important is a Life-Work balance. That’s where you work, and where you live, and the two must coexist. You can’t have one without the other. By being tired and grumpy, I was disrupting that life part.

Once I started saying No, once I started asking myself two simple questions, “what am I doing this work for?” and “why am I doing this work?” that brought a lot more power to me. I was able to focus more. I was able to concentrate on delivering quality results. Quite often I was delivering those results faster than if I’d been overloaded. I could spend the time needed, I could dig in, I could get into the flow state and just push out the work.

I know, I’m making this seem easy. Let’s be honest, in real life it’s not as simple as that. There are times you can’t say No.

You could be the only person with the skills or knowledge to do this piece of work. It’s pointless saying No to that because you’re going to have to do it in the end.

It could be an assignment that your boss wants you to do which will help you grow your skills. Your boss will say “can you write a report on the financial implications of doing this.” It’s not your area of expertise. What they’re doing is using it as a growth opportunity. They’re using this as a way to force you to expand your knowledge. You can’t say no to that. Your boss knows you can do it. Chances are they’re there to help you. If you say no they will likely think “what’s the point with this person, let’s not bother doing anything to help them again.”

So be careful. Try and understand the why. Why are you being asked to do something? Saying No for no reason at all, saying No because you don’t fancy something, that’s not a good thing to do. It’s counterproductive.

How can you say No

You look at the piece of work. You look at the impact it’s going to have on your time. You look at the impact it’s going to have on the other work you’ve got going on. You might think “is there somebody else who can do this?” You think to see if there is somebody else that can help you. You wonder if you can request a deadline extension for my other work. These are all questions you need to be asking.

Then when you go to say no you can say “I can’t do this because I’ve got these other four projects, if I take this on at least one of those will be impacted.” Then ask “which one of these do you want me to stop working on?” “Which one of these projects do you want to impact?” “Which one of the deadlines do you want to slip?”

There are lots of ways you can take this from being a flat No and turn it into a discussion about how you can work together to achieve the results without severely impacting what you’re doing.

I know for me, when I was the person trying to learn to say No, initially I gave a flat No. This got me nowhere. I was told to do it.

What I found is, that once I started going back and explaining why I was saying No, suggesting an alternate person to do it, suggesting the impact or what projects I should delay to do it, I was getting better results. I was finding that my boss was more understanding.

Go back with reasons, not with a flat No. But keep the reasons short. You don’t want a three-hour discussion, you want no more than two minutes.

Get into the discussion. Let them know why. Get feedback.

Summary

Once I learned to say No I found my results and the quality of my work was greatly improved. I was able to finish faster. I was doing more with my time rather than trying to juggle loads of different projects. I was concentrating on one or two projects at a time.

By doing that I get into my flow state. I deliver high-quality results on time.

I also found that I started to get more respect from my boss. They knew that I thought about everything I was asked to do. I didn’t come back with a flat No, I came back with some discussion points, with some suggestions that showed I had thought about it, I understood what was being asked, and I wanted to help move the business forward. Keeping this discussion short lets them build confidence in my abilities. it lets them build confidence in my ability to deliver.