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The ultimate productivity hack is to say "no"

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Not doing something is always faster than doing it. This statement reminds me of the adage from computer programming, "Remember that no code is faster than no code."

The same philosophy applies in other areas of life. For example, there is no meeting that goes faster than having no meeting at all.

That's not to say you should never attend a meeting again, but the truth is that we say yes to a lot of things we don't want to do. A lot of meetings are held that aren't necessary. A lot of code is written that could be deleted.

How many times are you asked to do something and you simply reply, "Sure thing." Three days later, you are overwhelmed by how much is on your to-do list. We become frustrated with our commitments, even though we were the ones who first said yes.

It's worth asking if things are necessary. Many of them are not, and a simple "no" will be more productive than anything the most efficient person can muster to do.

But if the benefits of saying no are so obvious, why do we say yes so often?

Why do we say yes
We agree to many requests not because we want to fulfill them, but because we don't want to be seen as rude, arrogant, or unhelpful. Often you have to consider saying no to someone you'll be dealing with again in the future - your co-worker, your spouse, your family, and friends.

Saying no to these people can be especially difficult because we like them and want to support them. (Not to mention that we often need their help, too.) Working with others is an important element of life. The thought of straining the relationship weighs more heavily than the investment of our time and energy.

For this reason, it can be helpful to be gracious and to respond. Do whatever you can, and be warm and direct when you need to say no.

But even when we have taken these social considerations into account, many of us still seem to be bad at weighing yes against no. We overcommit to things that don't meaningfully support our fellow human beings and certainly don't improve our own lives.

Perhaps one problem is how we think about the meaning of yes and no.

The difference between yes and no
The words "yes" and "no" are so often compared to each other that it feels like they carry the same weight in conversation. In reality, they not only have opposite meanings, but they also have completely different levels of commitment.

When you say no, you are only saying no to one option. When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.

I like how economist Tim Harford puts it, "Every time we say yes to a request, we're also saying no to everything else we could accomplish with that time." Once you've committed to something, you've already decided how you'll spend that time in the future.

In other words: Saying no saves you time in the future. Saying yes will cost you time in the future. Saying no is a form of time credit. You retain the ability to spend your future time the way you want. A yes is a form of time debt. At some point, you will have to pay back your commitment.

No is a choice. Yes is a responsibility.

The role of no.
Saying no is sometimes seen as a luxury that only the powerful can afford. And that's true: it's easier to turn down opportunities when you have the safety net of power, money, and authority to fall back on. But it's also true that saying no is not just a privilege reserved for the successful among us. It's also a strategy that can help you become successful.

Saying no is an important skill to develop at every stage of your career because it helps you preserve the most important asset in life: your time. As investor Pedro Sorrentino put it, "If you don't preserve your time, it will be stolen from you by others."

You must say no to anything that does not lead you to your goals. You must say no to distractions. One reader told me, "If you take the definition of no further, it's the only productivity hack (since you ultimately say no to every distraction to be productive)."

No one embodied this idea better than Steve Jobs, who said, "People think focus means saying yes to the thing you need to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are out there. You have to choose carefully."

The key here is to find a good balance. Saying no doesn't mean you'll never do anything interesting, innovative, or spontaneous. It just means saying yes purposefully. Once you've eliminated the distractions, it can be useful to say yes to every opportunity that might move you in the right direction. You may need to try many things to find out what works and what you enjoy. This phase of exploration can be especially important at the beginning of a project, job, or career.

Upgrade your No
Over time, as you continue to improve and succeed, your strategy must change.

The opportunity cost of your time increases as you become more successful. At first, eliminate only the obvious distractions and explore the rest. As your skills improve and you learn to distinguish what works from what doesn't, you need to continually raise the threshold to say yes.

You still need to reject distractions, but you also need to learn to reject opportunities that used to be a good use of time so you can make room for good use of time. This is a good problem to have, but it can be difficult to master.

In other words, you need to improve your "no's" over time.

Improving your no's doesn't mean you'll never say yes. It just means that you will say no by default and only say yes when it makes sense. To quote investor Brent Beshore, "Saying no is so powerful because it preserves the opportunity to say yes."

The general trend seems to be something like this: If you learn to say no to bad distractions, you'll eventually earn the right to say no to good opportunities.

How to say no
Most of us are probably too quick to say yes and too slow to say no. It's worth asking yourself where you lie on this spectrum.

If you find it difficult to say no, you might find the following strategy from Tim Harford, the British economist mentioned earlier, helpful. He writes, "One trick is to ask yourself, "If I had to do this today, would I agree to it?" That's not a bad rule of thumb, because any future commitment, no matter how distant, will eventually become an immediate problem.

If an opportunity is so exciting that you give up everything you're doing right now, then it's a yes. If not, then you might want to think twice.

This is similar to Derek Sivers' well-known "Hell Yeah or No" method. If someone asks you to do something and your first reaction is "Hell Yeah!" then do it. If it doesn't excite you, say no.

It's impossible to remember to ask yourself these questions every time you're faced with a decision, but it's still a useful exercise to repeat from time to time. Saying no can be difficult, but it's often easier than the alternative. As writer Mike Dariano has pointed out, "It's easier to avoid commitments than it is to get out of them. Saying no keeps you on the easier end of that spectrum.

What's true for health is also true for productivity: an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

The power of no
More effort is wasted on things that don't matter than on inefficient things. And when that's the case, elimination is a more useful skill than optimization.

I'm reminded of Peter Drucker's famous quote, "Nothing is so useless as doing efficiently what shouldn't be done at all."

As you want to increase your by not wasting time, try too for your successful career life to manage the organization with your fingerprints.

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