The Power of ‘No’

I prefer working in young companies.  Companies where everyone has a vested interest in making the company succeed and one where people go the extra mile to ensure the company is on the right track.

This type of environment comes with challenges that you have to recognize.  Inherently, any given individual will cross their own role’s traditional boundaries and work in areas that are either in someone else’s area (not for the bad, but because it’s necessary, often with that person’s gratitude) or in an area that has yet to get some resources devoted to it.

What does this mean?  Well, it means you get a lot on your plate.  You’ll often get pulled in so many directions that it’s just too demanding to deliver on everything all at the same time.  People often deal with this issue very well with some strong prioritization and intense focus.

But, that doesn’t mean you don’t get interrupted and it doesn’t mean that something, internal or external, happens to completely disrupt your previous prioritization.

I recently read an HBS blog post entitled “The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time“.  I couldn’t agree more with this article…focus helps you achieve what you need to be doing.  Distractions…well they prevent you from doing what you need to do.  So how do you get to do one thing at a time?

I’ve found that saying ‘no’ really helps me keep your focus on your tasks.  Sure you’ve got a lot to do, but you should also have a good understanding of what’s important on that list and what isn’t so important.  Now you’re thinking…”Everything’s important! I can’t let something drop!”  True!  But you also need to actually complete something!  Focusing on one thing at a time doesn’t imply dropping something.  It just means that when you work on one thing, devote yourself to it and don’t get side-tracked by the next thing you need to work on.

When I refer to saying ‘no’, I’m using it in a different way than you’re thinking.  I’m not saying “No, I can’t do that now and forever”.  What I am saying is:

  • Someone walks by my desk: I’m sorry, I can’t talk to you right now because I’m buried.  Come back later or send me an email.
  • Someone walks by my desk (and just starts talking): Please hold on, give me 30 seconds to finish what I’m currently working on.  Have a seat.
  • Someone tells me they need something from me tomorrow morning first thing at 4pm: No, I can’t deliver it by then.  Let’s push that meeting to next week and I’ll give it to you by then.  If that’s not going to work, an alternative would be to ask Person X to help you.  Or, I can spend 5 minutes with you in about 20 minutes to verbally give you what you need.
  • Someone says we need to do 15 things in the next 3 months: Great, we’ll get to as much of that as we can, but we’re going to focus on 2-3 things each month with the hope that we’ll get to more than 6-9 things by 3 months.  We will start with the most important stuff first though.

Many people who are attracted to young companies are pleasers, ones that want to do everything all the time and enable the company to succeed at all costs.  However, you can’t keep accumulating things to do forever.  At some point, you’ve got to start delivering and saying ‘no’ can help get you closer to doing that.


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