Have you ever said yes to something and then regretted the commitment you made? If so, you’re normal. Saying no is difficult for two primary reasons, which I will share below. But being able to say no is essential in creating the capacity to say yes to, and to be successful at, what is truly important.
I’ve been working with a particular client in the large-format printing business for about 18 months now. The company’s owners started in their garage in 2004, and today have built the company into a successful $10+ million business with around 100 employees. But it wasn’t without some bumps along the way.
In the early days, they were taking every order that came their way. It was always about finding a way to get to yes—and in those early days, doing so was critical to their survival. By the time we started working together in January of 2016, the business had grown to about $8 million in revenue and 70 employees. They had invested in very expensive large-format printing equipment, CNC machines, and the like and were capable of taking on very large projects. But their ability to achieve growth had flatlined. And they were stuck.
One of the early issues we recognized that was holding them back and causing frustrations was that they were still saying yes to everything that came their way. It was a habit based on what allowed them to survive when they were a startup. When we started to look at the kind of work that was a good fit for the business as it stands today, they began to recognize that much of the work they were saying yes to included jobs that were too small to efficiently utilize their newer, higher capacity production model. What was a fit for them in startup mode was no longer a fit.
The end result was that by saying yes to the small projects they had survived on in the early days, but which now created inefficiencies, bottlenecks, and frustrations, they were essentially saying no to doing more of the kind of work that was a right fit for them in their current stage. When they began to say no to the smaller orders that didn’t fit, they created more capacity to go after the big jobs that did. They became more efficient, more profitable, and their growth rate accelerated by 20% in our first year together.
Why Is "No" So Difficult?
There are two primary reasons why we find it difficult to say no. It requires deliberate courage and it creates awkwardness. In his book Essentialism, author Greg McKeown explains these two reasons why we struggle to just say no.
We often say yes to things in an effort to avoid conflict, avoid disappointing others, or to give into pressure. It takes a clear understanding of what is important and why in order to develop the clarity to know when to say no. With clarity and focus on the important things, you will realize that saying yes in the moment to something minor is really saying no to better opportunities. Then the courage to say no to the trivial, or less than important, becomes easier to find.
We have a natural tendency as humans to conform to what people expect of us. Psychologists refer to this as normative conformity, or “the conformity that occurs because of the desire to be liked or accepted.”
We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and it is up to us to determine how we choose to allocate them. Have you ever been invited to something by a group of peers and said yes, even though it forced you to give up something of more value that you needed to do? Have you been asked to do something by a boss or colleague, even though you did not have the capacity to do it without dropping something else?
Saying no actually brings us physical and emotional discomfort in these situations. What we have to pause and remember before answering these requests is whether to politely say no, and regret it for a moment, or begrudgingly say yes and regret it for days, weeks, months, or years.
Next Steps to Achieve Growth
I want to challenge you, before the end of the day today, to set aside 15 quiet minutes alone to think about all the important things you are unable to focus on because of the things you should have said no to. Make a list of the three to seven things that are most important to you. The next time somebody asks you to do something, pause and ask yourself, “Will this harm my capacity to focus on the important few things?” If yes, then smile, and give them a polite “No.”
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This article originally appeared on the Smart Direction blog on June 6, 2017.