Learn How To Say “No” To Improve Your Productivity

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

Being the CEO of a fast growing company is an incredibly fulfilling but also incredibly demanding job.  The day starts early and never ends.  Therefore, using my time wisely is super important.  I have a seemingly infinite todo list.  Therefore, figuring out what not to do is as important as, if not more important than, figuring out what to do.

About a year ago we ran into many roadblocks in scaling the company.  Among other things, key positions weren’t filling fast enough, which seriously hampered our progress.  When I had a discussion with Albert, I was telling him I was putting my focus on hiring but for some reason we didn’t make any progress.  He told me "a CEO does only three things".

Sets the overall vision and strategy of the company and communicates it to all stakeholders. Recruits, hires, and retains the very best talent for the company. Makes sure there is always enough cash in the bank.

He then asked me to check my calendar.  My calendar wouldn’t lie.

He was spot on.  I said I was focusing on hiring but I was running around like a headless chicken.  As such, I only devoted a small percentage of my time on hiring.  No wonder we didn’t hire fast enough.

I have switched my approach since.  Before I spend time on ANY task, I always ask myself this question: does it fall under one of the 3 things in the above?  If yes, I will make sure I find the time to do it.  If not, I will say no in a lot of cases.  Don’t get me wrong, I often do a lot more than these three things.  But I will be quite selective.  Here is my “no” list:

1. Spam.  Sadly, email is our task list that anybody can add to – whether they know us or not.  I don’t spend time in reading obviously mass emails without any direct relation to Wattpad.

2. Partnership proposals.  I receive a lot of proposals (excluding spam, see above).  I do spend time reading the email and investigating to find out more but I won’t spent more than 5 minutes. Based on past experience, 95% of the partnership won’t materialize.  Therefore, I will stop at 5 minutes if I am not convinced that it is one of those “5%”.  I know sometimes it is hard to tell within 5 minutes, and sometimes I might miss out some great one, but I don’t have to be 100% right here.  I would always be respectful when I am saying “no” because the other side is investing time in you too.  But I think a quick “no” is in fact mutually beneficial because it can save everyone’s time and move on.    

3. Say “no” to (some) coffee meetings.  Networking is important but it is also a time killer.  I now try to arrange calls during my commute instead (now you know why I have those 9am and 630pm calls).  I also arrange meetings at networking events so that I can meet 10 people at once.  I am getting a lot of coffee requests.  Although I love to meet new friends, the reality is that I can’t say yes to everyone.  Tips: if it involves hiring ….  

4. “Under prepared” introductions.  Please read Asking For Introduction: The Proper Etiquette.

5. Advisor.  First of foremost, I am very eager to help.  I consider helping other people as giving back to the community.  However, I say no to all advisory roles, period (the only exception is my mentorship at Extreme Startups).  I want to be helpful but I just can’t commit to something I know I will fail to deliver (because of the lack of time and focus).  Here is what I would do - I will be very happy to answer your questions or give advice through email (even from people whom I never met) because I can keep the conversation short and sweet, and answer them during the “gap” (see below).  I also find that most of the advice / answers are readily available on my blog (or elsewhere on the Internet).

6. Meetings (in the office).  Be very selective.  Only go to the meetings that you can add a lot of value (either to yourself or the meeting participants).      

7. News.  I resist the temptation of checking news during the day.  I believe important news can find me.  Yes, I might have heard the Instagram acquisition a few hours later than most people but that’s okay.  That’s why I love Twitter.  Spending 10 seconds to check news (and email of course) during the “gap” (e.g. waiting for elevator) is all I need.

8. Unsubscribe to all email newsletters so that I can process my inbox more efficiently (see #7 and see below).

9. Say “no” to (some) emails.  I read every email but I have to accept the fact that I can’t always respond.  I feel bad but I can’t become an email slave.  I start to realize that most people are reactive to email, and before they know they become responsive to the priorities that other people set for them rather than their own important tasks.  I learned this from Mark Suster and it definitely helped me to become more productive.  I also turn off my email completely if I know I have to concentrate on a certain task.

10. Speaking opportunities.  I don’t say yes to every single opportunity anymore.  Yes, it is “free” marketing but the hidden cost is very high (preparation, travel time etc.).   

The list can go on and on.  The bottom line is: you don’t have to say “yes” to everything.  You can do anything but you can’t do everything, which includes adding #11 to the above list.  :-)

To make yourself more productive, what would you say “no” to?