- "No" is a "Yes" to Focus and a Meaningful Life
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June 18, 2024

In the mid-1990s, Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors, shared a story that has since become legendary in business. It involves his pilot, Mike Flint. Flint had worked for Buffett for a decade, and one day, he asked his boss for advice on achieving his career goals. Buffett's advice was simple yet profound.

Buffett told Flint to list his top 25 career goals. Flint did so. Then, Buffett asked him to circle the five most important goals. Flint obliged, assuming the next step would be to focus on the top five while intermittently working on the other 20. But Buffett had a different approach.

"No," Buffett said. "Everything you didn't circle just became your 'avoid at all cost' list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you've succeeded with your top five." This is known as Buffett's 5/25 Rule.

Brainstorm your top 25 goals. Be honest with yourself and include both short-term and long-term objectives. Once you have your list, carefully select the five most crucial goals that will significantly impact your success. These five goals become your primary focus, while the remaining 20 form your "avoid at all cost" list. You can accelerate your progress and achieve extraordinary results by dedicating your time and energy to your top five goals and saying "no" to the rest.

The Necessity of No

Our ability to say "no" is a crucial skill. In the "busy" of daily operations, it's easy to become a processor of other people's requests, losing sight of your goals. Each "yes" you give is a commitment that diverts your focus from your core priorities. Every "yes" is a diversion to either people-please others or distract yourself.

The Hidden Cost of Yes

Every time you say "yes" to a new project, meeting, or favor, you allocate a finite resource: your time. CEOs and executives must recognize that time is their most valuable asset. When your schedule is cluttered with commitments that aren't aligned with your strategic goals, you lose the ability to focus deeply on what truly matters. (See Cal Newport's Deep Work)

Consider the opportunity cost of every "yes." When you say yes to something that isn't crucial, you're saying no to something that is. This can lead to a scattered approach where your attention is divided, and your effectiveness is diminished. By understanding the hidden cost of yes, you can make more intentional choices about where to allocate your time and energy.

Saying No to Others

Saying no isn't easy. It's a muscle that needs to be developed. When someone asks for your time or resources, your initial impulse might be to accommodate. This impulse, though well-intentioned, can be detrimental. Politely declining requests that don't align with your top priorities is key. This might mean saying no to networking events, declining speaking engagements, or even postponing meetings that aren't crucial.

It's natural to feel concerned about the potential impact of saying "no" on relationships or opportunities. However, it's important to remember that by saying "no" to less important tasks, you're saying "yes" to your most critical priorities. Most people will understand and respect your decision when you communicate your reasoning clearly and politely.

To help ease the discomfort of saying no, practice the art of graceful decline. You can express appreciation for the opportunity while clearly stating your current focus. For example, "Thank you for thinking of me for this project. Right now, I'm focused on a few key priorities, and I need to decline to ensure I can give my best effort to these areas."

Saying No to Yourself

Perhaps even more challenging than saying no to others is saying no to yourself. I struggle with this one the most. This involves resisting the urge to pursue new ideas and opportunities that, while exciting, don't align with your focus. Discipline in self-regulation is critical. It's about recognizing that not every opportunity is worth pursuing, no matter how enticing it may seem.

Our brains are wired to seek novelty and excitement, which can lead us to chase after shiny new projects. However, constantly pursuing new opportunities can distract us from our core objectives. By practicing self-discipline and staying committed to your top five goals, you can avoid the trap of spreading yourself too thin.

One effective strategy is to keep a "shiny object" list. Whenever a new idea or opportunity arises, jot it down on this list instead of acting on it immediately. Periodically review the list to evaluate whether any of these ideas align with your strategic priorities. This allows you to capture your creative thoughts without derailing your focus. For the record, my "shiny objects" list has 203 items, most of which I can look back on and discard as bad ideas.

The Discipline of No

Implementing the discipline of "no" requires a strategic approach. Here are some practical ideas to help you stay focused.

1. Create a Clear Vision

Arnold Schwarzenegger's uncompromising commitment to his vision has been a defining characteristic throughout his life. From his early days as a bodybuilder in Austria, Schwarzenegger set his sights on becoming the greatest in the world. He visualized his success, creating a clear mental picture of his goals, and then took massive action to make them a reality. This same principle guided him as he transitioned into acting, politics, and business. Schwarzenegger's ability to create a compelling vision, whether it was becoming a Hollywood star or the Governor of California, and his relentless dedication to pursuing that vision has been instrumental in his extraordinary success across multiple domains.

"My confidence came from my vision.... I am a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier."

A well-defined vision, coupled with an unshakable commitment to its realization, can lead to incredible achievements. Incorporate both personal and professional aspirations into your vision. It should be specific enough to guide your decisions but flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. Regularly revisit and refine your vision to ensure it remains relevant and inspiring.

2. Set Boundaries

Establishing boundaries is critical. It means creating specific criteria for what you will and won't do. For instance, decide in advance the maximum time you're willing to spend on non-essential meetings this week. Now stick to it! Uncomfortable? Empowering?

Boundaries act as guardrails that protect your time and energy. They help you make decisions more quickly and confidently by providing a clear line in the sand for evaluating opportunities. Communicate your boundaries clearly to others. Let your team, colleagues, and stakeholders know your priorities and the rationale behind your boundaries; however, don't be apologetic. There is zero reason we need to apologize for our focus.

3. Delegate Effectively

Give your team autonomy and ownership over their responsibilities and delegate a few of your own tasks and decisions. This will free up your time to concentrate on high-impact activities and deep work. Trusting your team and delegating effectively will allow you to say no to tasks that others can handle.

Remember, delegation involves more than just assigning tasks. It requires clear communication, setting expectations, and providing the necessary resources and support. Choose the right people for the right tasks, based on their strengths and expertise. If you can't delegate, then what does that say about your team?

4. Schedule Time for Deep Work

Block out time in your calendar for deep work, periods of uninterrupted focus on your most important tasks. Avoid meetings, calls, and emails during these times. This dedicated time is sacred and should be protected at all costs. If your organization practices a business framework like Scaling Up or EOS Traction, then you'll have Rocks to work on. I routinely tell my teams that each Rock should equate to 2 to 4 hours of focused deep work per week over the entire quarter.

Deep work requires sustained concentration and minimal distractions. It allows you to produce high-quality work and make significant progress on your most critical goals. To maximize the effectiveness of deep work:

  1. Create an environment conducive to focus.

  2. Try to find your flow state.

  3. Minimize interruptions by turning off notifications, closing unnecessary tabs, and setting clear expectations with your team about your availability.

Experiment with different time blocks to find what works best for you. Some people thrive with long stretches of deep work, while others prefer shorter, more frequent sessions. The key is to find a routine that supports your productivity and aligns with your natural rhythms.

5. Practice Mindfulness and Reflection

Regularly reflecting on your commitments and how they align with your goals is essential. Mindfulness practices can help you stay grounded and focused. Take time each week to review your activities and ensure they are in line with your priorities and goals.

Mindfulness involves being present and fully engaged in the moment. It helps you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and actions, allowing you to make more intentional choices. Incorporate mindfulness practices such as meditation, journaling, or mindful breathing into your daily routine to enhance your focus and clarity.

Reflection can be used as a tool for continuous improvement. Set aside time each week to review your progress, assess your priorities, and make any necessary adjustments. Ask yourself questions like: What went well this week? What challenges did I face? How can I improve my focus and alignment with my goals? This regular check-in helps you stay on track and make proactive changes.

The Unsexy Truth - Saying No is Hard Work

The truth is, saying no isn't glamorous.

It's a discipline that requires constant vigilance and self-awareness. It means disappointing others and sometimes yourself. But it's also the key to preserving your focus and achieving great success. Saying "no" is about prioritizing what truly matters and having the courage to unapologetically let go of what doesn't.

Start doing it right now. For the next 8 hours, commit yourself to say "no" more than you say "yes."

I'd be curious what you learn about yourself, and what you can accomplish.

author avatar
George Morris
I use my 20+ years of entrepreneurial experience and training to coach businesses on scaling up rapidly using Verne Harnish's Scaling Up framework. By doing so, my clients are more efficient and profitable, giving them the ability to make bigger impacts in the world. I deeply believe entrepreneurs are the best equipped to be the vehicle for meaningful change, and in the decade ahead, we'll see a substantial shift in how business is done. We'll move to a model where company purpose, impact, curiosity, and team health will be differentiators in overall business success. As Simon Sinek has pointed out, the finite games are the legacy of the past; we're moving to an infinite game.