Why you should say no more often

Any developer / information worker worth his weight in salt probably receives more offers than he knows what to do with. I’m talking about the tiny little side gigs that creep up through the network. Things like:

  • Help a friend of a friend fix a small blog issue. It’s a ‘1 minute fix’ for someone with your skillset.
  • A good friend has a world changing app idea but doesn’t know how to code. It’s definitely going to make you rich.

Curiously, most people have no problem saying no to the many job offers sent by recruitment services that flood their LinkedIn inboxes. And most of these are paid offers! So why do we have such a hard time saying no to the unpaid, low-potential offers? I would guess that it’s due to social proximity. The closer you are to the person, the harder you’ll find it to say no.

Y Combinator, one of the most prestigious startup incubators in the world, only has a 3% acceptance rate. Of that, only a tiny percentage go on to become successful companies. Go ahead and take a look at the list and see how many companies you recognize. You can filter by exited (sold), active and dead. Of course, some are probably doing fine in niches that lack the visibility of a Dropbox level brand. Admittedly, there is some selection bias here, as Y Combinator has their own arbitrary set of selection criteria, but the point is that some of the worlds most successful investors pass on 97%+ of opportunities.

Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is the result of good work habits.
Twyla Tharp

If Y Combinator had a 100% acceptance rate, what would happen to their success rate? Even if they could provide an equal level of mentorship to each of the thousands of companies that apply each session (they can’t, and the entire roster would suffer as a result — this is opportunity cost in action), it’s still  fairly obvious that the success rate would drop. Said another way: Success rate is as dependent on the opportunities you turn down as it is on the ones that you accept. 

Aside from the opportunity cost and potentiality of various commitments, you also have to consider the mental cost. Your creativity well only goes so deep. The core belief of the GTD movement is that all the small tasks and responsibilities you have knocking around in your head are detracting from your focus and relaxation. If you’re feeling rushed and burned out, sometimes the best medicine is to re-prioritize and schedule some downtime (taking a tech sabbatical could be a good idea).

5 Tips for Saying No

  1. As a rule of thumb, you should say no to more opportunities than you accept (i.e. the successful investor).
  2. Carefully consider the potential of each opportunity. Potential can be evaluated based on your current goals (money, time, knowledge, relationship, etc).
  3. Weigh the expected value against the opportunity cost. What happens when you’re completely full on commitments and Kevin Rose reaches out for a quick app prototype? That’s opportunity cost.
  4. Know what you can handle. Most people consider themselves able to maintain a 40 hour work week by default. In reality, you’re only productive a tiny % of that time. And your creativity well is probably only able to seriously support a couple of things anyway.
  5.  Just do it. Thank them for the opportunity and let them know that you’re too busy as it is. Better to turn down the opportunity than to accept it and not be able to deliver on your responsibilities due to other commitments.