Priorities First: When to Say No

“Should I say yes or no?!” my entrepreneur client asked me.

Overwhelmed by saying yes to everything, and occasionally paralyzed by indecision, James had gotten to the point where he realized that something had to give. Beyond simply learning HOW to say no, he wasn’t even sure what to say no to.

Entrepreneurs are great at seizing opportunity. Maybe it’s even the thing we are best at. Many of us have built our companies by saying yes to a lot. And now that we have experienced success, we are REALLY saying yes a lot…to the point that it can hurt our businesses, our health, or our families.


Let’s go back to the beginning. Ok, before the beginning. Back to the part before you had another opportunity begging you to take it.

What is most important to you? Getting clear on your priorities is key for driving your company forward, and it also simplifies what to do when you reach fork after fork in the road.

When you are clear that your focus is on acquiring your ideal customer and hitting a $5MM revenue target for the quarter, you’ll quickly know if speaking at that conference is a yes or no. It might require some answers about attendee demographics from the organizers, but it’s relatively easy to figure out. If you are just planning to grow your customer base it’s a lot less clear.

Pro tip: If you are asked to do something and it doesn’t quite fit your priorities, you can often RENEGOTIATE it to fit them. Many entrepreneurs who I coach are surprised that they didn’t think about this option. It comes back to being clear about your priorities—if you know them, you can make them happen. If you don’t, you have no way of purposefully shifting your conversations and activities so they happen more easily.

It’s Time to Get Real

Once you’ve determined that an opportunity fits your priorities, it’s time to see if it fits your schedule. This requires you to get real. Don’t be the eternal optimist for a minute here, let’s take a cold hard look at what an opportunity is really asking for.

“It’s just a 30-minute talk plus Q&A. It should take 60 minutes and that’s it,” says the event organizer.

Let’s break it down:

  • 2 hours to outline a presentation, create a slide deck, source images, and more
  • 1 hour to practice
  • 1 hour to coordinate with event organizers on topic, logistics, create invoices, and more via phone and email
  • 1 hour to drive, park, and arrive early to event
  • 1 hour for presentation and Q&A
  • 1 hour for networking after presentation
  • 1 hour to drive home
  • 1 hour the following day to email follow ups, connect on LinkedIn, enter contacts into database, and pursue leads

By these bare minimum estimates, your 1 hour commitment is suddenly NINE HOURS. For many people, this illustration explains why they are so busy and overwhelmed by their commitments.

There Are Always Options

The next step is to look at your calendar. Where will you fit these 9 hours? If there is room, book each item on your calendar like it’s a meeting. If there isn’t time, consider saying no or renegotiating the commitment. Could you present via video call? Could you sit on a panel that would require no prep time? You have options.

If you don’t like scheduling things on your calendar, consider this: The most productive people schedule most activities on their calendars, even scheduling flexible time to handle things that just come up. Things that don’t have time allocated for them often don’t get done. (This may be why your to-do list never seems to get any shorter.) If you are resistant to scheduling things, yet find there aren’t enough hours in the day, that may be a topic for you to explore.

Habits Take Time

At the end of the day, remember that learning when to say no means developing new habits and habits take time. The more you practice using a consistent process when you have to decide what to say, the better you’ll be. Try choosing one new part of Saying No to focus on for the next week, and see how it goes. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help from your business partner, accountability buddy, spouse, or coach.