Mark Suster has a great post on saying No to meetings.

The problem is that the scarcest resource in any entrepreneur’s life is your time.  Yet we all feel guilty not doling out time for anybody who asks – especially if we were introduced.  I know!  I feel the same way.  I’m trying to embrace my inner “NO” a little more in my life.  One simply can’t take every meeting.

His advice is, in essence, to be honest about the lack of time. When I read the post this morning, I thought of the gift Seth Godin gave me years ago when I was struggling with the same issue…too many meeting requests and not enough time. His gift?

Just say, “I wish I could but I can’t.” Especially when you really wish you could.

The other day, for about the hundreth time this year, I found myself thinking of that little gift when working with a client. Only this time, what the client needed to say No to wasn’t another meeting. It was chasing another bright shiny object, a red rubber ball, another idea.

“What would happen,” I asked him, “if you only had one product to focus on?”

He paused. Then smiled. “We’d ship on time.”

I smiled back.

Saying No to the bright shiny object of yet another idea is terribly powerful. In fact, I often argue, it releases you from competing with yourself, from trying to out do yourself with each new idea.

We’re all a little like Dug the dog in Up. Right in the middle of a sentence, SQUIRREL, we’re distracted by some other thing to do, some other notion, some memory from the past, some idea about the future, some magical silver bullet that will make it all alright. Saying No to the squirrels is liberating.

I have to practice saying No all the time.  Several weeks, after Fred Wilson wrote a post about me,  I had to explain to a potential client that, at that moment, I was unable to take on more clients. He said, “It must be nice to be able to say No to clients.”

Nice? No. It’s hard. In part because I worry some day I might struggle to find clients.  But  mostly it’s hard because I really wish I could help but unfortunately I can’t.

PS. Boy howdy I must be into link baiting today…Mark, Seth, and Fred…all I need to add is a link to Brad Feld and I’ll have hit for the cycle.

  • http://www.nosnivelling.com/ daveschappell

    Or, include a business card drawing from Gaping Void with the word No on it — It just has SQUIRREL to exist. I think I’d pay for a large one, to frame SQUIRREL and place in view on my desk.

    • jerrycolonna

      Brilliant Dave.
      How about this…a Gaping Void card with Yes on the front and, flipping it over, it says No. Hugh, you listening?

      • panterosa,

        There are two threads running through the post and the replies: One is liberal use of No directed at others. Two is self distraction SQUIRREL. Saying No to self.

        The first No, directed outward, is really prioritizing and clutter clearing your time and commitments. Via Jerry’s reply to Peter I agree with No=Yes since point of view frames the answer. I Ching says there are two forces in the world – polarity and periodicity. I like the idea of a Gaping Void Yes/No card as a form that roulette.

        “The real problem SQUIRREL is when we’re distracted by our own ideas,” Jerry comments.

        This means say No inwardly. Is this “Bad meditator!”, you had another idea? I must be a puppy. I still love the bouncing balls, the bright shiny ideas, fetching, bringing back. But then my coach said I was very bouncy that way, too bouncy and self-interrupting. Bad puppy. To happily seduced by having fun ideas.

        I would argue that SQUIRREL is not dumb, but smart, a form of your brain interrupting something to let it know it had a good idea. Pay attention! A well trained mind has flashes of inspiration and SQUIRRELs worth chasing, and the intelligence of gut instinct of which ones to chase. I see SQUIRREL as another way of the universe asking you to listen. The question is to what, and how does it relate? Or is it just stop a moment? Pause. See.

        I get the overarching messages here and the appropriate use of both No’s, yet I am troubled by the nuance that we should be so disciplined and linear and deliver! perform! achieve dammit! Life is non linear, and I feel we fall prey to the illusion that it is linear, and that we have control. Doesn’t Buddhism seek to rid you of this illusion? Yes, we have goals and agendas and want to achieve them. And yes, No plays a role in that and saving us from being over-committed and exhausted. Somehow I feel a piece is missing here, but I can’t put my finger on it.

        Or maybe I am simply seduced by Gaping Void’s recent dailybizcard “Make love to my imagination. We can work on the rest later.”


        • Hugh MacLeod aka gapingvoid

          Yes, Jerry, I’m listening 😀

          We can talk about it during our next phone call 😉


          • jerrycolonna

            😉 Deal

        • jerrycolonna

          I can see how those little distractions are important…they COULD be messages from a deeper self, for example, trying to poke through and surface. BUT they could also simply be a puppy-dog mind. Discernment is called for (Gosh, now I really sound like Yoda).

          • panterosa,

            Discernment is such a 25 cent word that I looked it up to make sure I had all the meanings. The spiritual one adds an interesting twist to the straight meaning.

            Yes, very Yoda. Except puppy Luke did listen to distracting other inner messages and fell from his handstand, and arguably did the right thing to follow his instinct, stop training, and run off and aid his friends, even if was against Yoda’s advisement.

            I suppose this leads me back to trusting your gut. If life seeks to lead you somewhere you need to learn to calibrate your gut to the level of discernment which the traffic of your life and work can bear. Sometime urges you don’t understand lead you to timely, interesting and important places. Remaining open enough to let this happen I think leads to less regret. Mainly people regret things they didn’t do rather than things they did do.

  • davearkoosh

    The corollary to meetings distracting from critical goals is that, when pulled away from these critical goals, the meetings become unproductive as we not only fail to focus on our current critical goals, but we fail to focus on the content and audience of the meeting. The work we should be doing instead of sitting in a meeting regarding something off in the mental periphery becomes the shiny ball, making us pick up the phone, forget details, and generally overlook actively listening. It’s not only important for the sake of one’s focus to kindly say no, but out of respect for the party extending the invitation to meet. I’ve been there when someone’s rudely distracted. I would take a considerate “no” over watching someone work on something else via their phone any day.

    • jerrycolonna

      You’re right Dave…but I’m actually less troubled by the rudely distracted (“Wait, let me check my email before finishing this sentence.”) Even though it may be more frequent, it’s a less severe problem. The next time someone checks their Blackberry while I’m speaking, I’m just going to smack them. I learned THAT last week in my Non-violent Communications in the Workplace seminar.
      The real problem SQUIRREL is when we’re distracted by our own ideas. SQUIRREL. Even more, when we start whip-sawing the entire organization chasing down those damn SQUIRRELs.

  • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

    It took me years to learn to say No. I always felt the need to show them that I could get things done, so invariably I would say Yes and look for a pat on the back at the other end. Now I’m all “growed” up I’ve learned to say No.

    It’s actually one of the most important qualities for an Entrepreneur. Imagine being in front of a great term sheet and having the ability to say No. Imagine being able to say No to a customer because it’s not the right thing. Imagine being able to say No to a new feature in an app your developing.

    No is very empowering. In fact I had a prospect say to No to me the other day – it got me so fired up that we’ll solve the problem anyway – because it really was an incredible idea that they had – they just didn’t want to go forward with it.

    You’ll never struggle if you can say No… because it allows you the flexibility to do your best work.

    • jerrycolonna

      So No is really Yes.

      • http://www.3pmobile.com/ Peter Cranstone

        Depends on what outcome you want.

    • paulhart

      I was very fortunate to get some coaching a while ago from a boss who instructed me to deploy ‘no’ to a vast array of people within a client organization, bcc’ing him at every turn.

      It’s the most liberating word in my vocabulary.

      • jerrycolonna

        What a great boss you had.

  • http://www.tereza.com/ Tereza

    Timely post Jerry.

    In the last 3 weeks, including this morning, I gave 5 of the scariest No’s in my life. Things I’d dangled out there in the past year or two that finally came to fruition…and are now totally out of sync with what I’ve committed to doing.

    I trust these folks will perceive these as adult responses and the no’s will lead to bigger and better things. At least, I hope so…

    • jerrycolonna

      Wow. Pretty damn scary indeed. But it’s great that you recognized the out of synch nature of those past commitments.

  • kareem

    Good post, Jerry.

    I like Seth’s response, but I struggle with it – it’s disingenuous. A more precise response would be:

    “I wish I could, but I won’t.”

    “Can’t” implies your path is fixed and you have no control over it. But we all choose how to spend our time, so “won’t” is the better word to use.

    Can’t is more polite than won’t, though, which is why I struggle :)

    • jerrycolonna

      Agreed UNLESS “Can’t” is the honest response. (Although I’m reminded of something I heard last week…”The only thing one “can’t” do is not breathe for more than four minutes.”
      Seriously, there is an implicit “won’t” in most cases…like, I “can’t” see you tomorrow because I “won’t” break my appointment with a client to do so.
      But if you really do wish you could and you can’t because to do so would violate your values or other commitments, then I think “I wish I could but I can’t” is perfectly fine.

  • http://www.thelancasterfoodco.com Charlie Crystle

    Had you mentioned my name your server would have crashed. So it’s good you didn’t.

    I’ve been asking my startup clients what are the things they can’t stop doing–take 30% of what you’re doing, and simply stop doing it. Focus on what matters. So what matters?

    I chase the shiny new thing. I move the shiny old thing along, but the new thing, it calls out to me, gets me hooked, and then there’s the other complementary shiny new thing that is of course STRATEGIC so I can justify it.

    Focus. Sigh.

    • jerrycolonna

      As I replied to Panterosa…discernment, it is you are wanting.

  • http://www.sethmcguire.wordpress.com/ Seth McGuire

    An interesting post came out recently that talks about the difference between Askers and Guessers (not a new concept) but specifically in light of “saying no” and why people are uncomfortable doing it (or comfortable asking things that make others uncomfortable saying no!)- based on their personality attributes as Asker vs Guesser:

    • jerrycolonna

      Thanks for the link, Seth.

  • Jeff Walker

    Jennifer McCrea says that she evaluates meetings based on whether they SIMed her and the person she was speaking with (Surprised, Inspired or Moved her AND the other person). If they don’t do one of the three she thought of the meeting as a failure. It helped her say No to next meetings with the person asking and relooking at how she allocated her time. How should we evaluate whether to take the meeting? what result should come from the request to “take a call”. Part of life is being open to new ideas, connections, “beings”. tough. It is easier to say NO to someone you know is a waste of time…harder for the intro from a great friend or passionate person.

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