Jedi Productivity 4 of 11: Obi-Wan’s guide to say “No”, (these are not the droids you are looking for…)

This post is part of the Star Wars Jedi Productivity blog post series.  There will be 11 posts coming weekly every Tuesday for… yes… just counted it… the next 11 weeks.  These posts will guide your journey from a wilful, novice young pretender who is controlled by time…  into a magnificent Jedi who uses time as her own power.  The full set of posts are available from here.


Obi-Wan’s guide to say “No”, (these are not the droids you are looking for…)

I’ve seen people lose their jobs because they took on too many projects and failed to deliver.  It is not so much a risk at the lower levels of corporate life, but as you move up it is “the” risk.  In this post I ask that you begin to practice the fine art of saying “No”.

If you say “No”, and then make a readjustment and say “Yes” – the other party realises the value of your contribution, realises that you take the work seriously, realises that this is something that is over and above your basic job description.

If you say “No” and keep to it, you have time, energy and resources to go towards what is important to you.

No, these are not the droids you are looking for; Photo Credit: gordontarpley

Senior people who fail to achieve their objectives get sacked.  It doesn’t matter if you said “yes” lots and people think you are lovely.

“You can’t manage time. You manage yourself” Joseph Ferrari

How I deliver my basic “No” to a meeting request

This is the first time that I share this secret…

I teach at a business school.  Here.  I teach over 1,500 participants each year.  I love the participants in my courses, I love their energy, I love their ideas and I love spending time with them.  I get asked to meet for coffee a lot.

The problem?  Where’s the problem you might ask?  The problem is that I can’t write, teach or spend time with my daughter if I say “yes” to 100% of these requests.

It is not that they are poor requests.  It is not that I wouldn’t enjoy spending time with the people.  It is that I have to prioritise.  Writing is good because I can write this once and keep referring people to it.  Meeting is bad because I can’t scale myself.

Now, some of the requests are easy to say “No” to.  Some emails demonstrate that the person asking for my time has taken exactly zero minutes to think about who I am, what I am interested in, read 2-3 relevant posts on my blog (most questions are answered there!).

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to 275 creative people asking them for an interview for a book he was writing.  Read some of the responses at Creative People Say No.  Over 60% said “No”.  The ability to say “No” is a prerequisite for a productive life.

Obi-Wan’s Jedi “No”:  How to effectively say “No”

First, I’ll let you in on my secret.  I don’t say “No”.

Yes, when I am asked for a meeting: I don’t say “No”.

I say “Yes, I would love to meet with you.  I am free this Friday at 7:30am in my office in Sabadell (30 miles from the centre of Barcelona).”

Sabadell is a 1 hour journey from Barcelona.  Train and taxi, or a car journey.  The cost of the other person is now 2-3 hours in addition to the 30-40 minutes for coffee with me.

Most people say “well, maybe not this Friday…”  and I know that they don’t value meeting with me enough to make it worth my while.

Some people say “ok, its a tough time, but I’ll be there”.  I now say “Hey, next Wednesday I’ll be in Barcelona, lets do 11:00”.  I know that is important enough to them to pay 3 extra hours of their time to have the meeting.

This way I get to know whether the person requesting my time is just looking to meet with anybody, or they have a valid, real, important reason to want to speak to me.  If its worth 3 hours of their time, it is probably worth a coffee for me.

Raise the Cost of your “Yes”

All of the effective people who say “No” well, don’t use the word “No”.

  • To their boss: “That sounds important.  Thank you for thinking of me. I need you to help decide which of my current projects you would like me to stop working on so that I can dedicate enough time to this request.”
  • To their colleague: “I would love to, but I am overcommitted right now.  Would you get back to me in [1 day, 1 week, 1 month…]?”
  • To the charity/non-profit/industry association: “I love your organisation. Thanks for thinking of me. I’m unable to accept your kind offer right now.”
  • To others: “Thanks for reaching out to me.  Have you tried _____?”

That’s it. That’s the rule: Raise the Cost of your “Yes”.

Raise the cost of your “Yes”

Raise the cost of your “Yes”.  Don’t allow it to be free for the requestor.  It takes a bit of practice to get it to come out authentically, but it is worth the effort.  Practice now on the small things – because the higher your profile, the greater your resources, the more you know – the more requests you are going to receive.

The Science of Reasons for No

It matters how you frame your No.  The words “No, I don’t eat ice-cream” is much more powerful than “No, I can’t eat ice-cream”.  Read more at The Scientific Guide to Saying No over at Lifehacker.  Don’t make your “No” a self-limiting “I can’t”-No, make it a positive decision.  It matters (to yourself more than to the other).

Here’s a request for you to practice with:  Would you leave a comment below?  Please?

Goodbye Ad-Hoc, Hello Systematic

In order to be a full Jedi time manager, the novice must learn to use proven tools such as:

  • Prioritising
  • Goal Setting
  • Deadlines
  • Delegation
  • Planning

That’s what this post series is all about.  You will become a master of the force and a power user of the tools of systematic, habitual action.

Are you a Jedi guided missile?  Are you systematic in how you set goals and make daily progress on what is important?  Or, are you more of an ad-hoc novice?

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Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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