An ability to say “no” is an invaluable skill — especially in business. The problem with saying “yes” a lot is that you use up all your time. As we all know, time is our most precious resource. No matter how rich you are, you cannot buy more of it. The world will keep asking things of you — almost invariably not for your benefit, but theirs.
So you agree to meet people who want advice; you meet people who want a job; you consent to deliver a speech because you said yes in a moment of weakness — but now you have to write the speech and travel to and from the venue where you must give it. Mere acquaintances and those after favours crowd out real work, friends and family.
It always appears easier to say yes in the short run. We want to avoid offending people, we want others to like us, we are flattered by the attention — but in the long run, it is much better to say no, unless you actually want to go ahead with whatever it is that you’ve (reluctantly) agreed to do.
It is vital to be protective of your diary and not allow it to be cluttered with non-essential fluff, which will only distract you from the vital matters with which you should be engaged. I have never rationed my time as strictly as I could have — I have been too easily distracted by wild goose chases and peripheral stuff.
With instant communications, it is all too easy to agree to proposals — it just takes a brief, quick email or text — and then you’re committed. I try to clear my in-box efficiently, but that can mean making the mistake of saying yes in a hurry and regretting it at leisure. Too late, you realise your diary is full of productivity-sapping appointments.
Much worse than just wasting time, I have said yes to a number of investment propositions over the decades, when I should have said no. The clues were almost certainly there, but I ignored or overlooked them.
In such matters, it is essential to be extremely fussy and treat your capital as a scarce resource. All manner of projects can sound wonderful to begin with, but usually such ventures turn out to be too good to be true. Rigorous scrutiny is a prerequisite before saying yes unconditionally.
With poor investments, you not only lose money — you also waste time and become discouraged by failure. The opportunity cost of bad deals can often be more expensive than the financial losses. All this can be avoided by simply saying no at the beginning, rather than getting sucked in.
Unfortunately, I am, by nature, an enthusiast and I enjoy meeting entrepreneurs and learning about new schemes — and of course you have to be open to opportunities, but too often these are not viable. One of the tasks of my colleagues is to stop me getting seduced into going down dead ends. Sadly, there are many more bad bets out there than there are worthwhile ones.
However, I worry that if I say no to everything — party invitations, conferences, dinners and so forth — I will never get asked anywhere again. But actually that isn’t what happens. The hosts will probably prefer it if you say no straight away rather than agreeing to attend an event and then cancelling at the last minute.
The key is to be highly selective. My friend recommends the golden rule: would I attend this event if it was staged this evening? If the response is no, then don’t accept the invitation, even if it’s three months away.
There are certain things to which you should always say no. One is making loans to friends. Either give them the cash outright as a gift, or do nothing. Lending them money and then having to chase them for repayment typically destroys a friendship, whereas just saying no to a loan should not. It is always wise to say no to expensive hospitality from a supplier who will then expect business in return. Better not to feel obliged, and so ensure the relationship is a strictly commercial one.
Life is too short to try to do everything; you have to decide to focus on a short list of priorities — activities where you can make a contribution, where you can have fun, and with people whom you trust. Whether it’s business ideas, friendships, charities or hobbies, if you spread yourself too thin then the outcome will be sub-optimal.