The Easiest Way To Protect Your Time

Productive people have empty schedules. That requires a lot of “no.”

The Easiest Way To Protect Your Time

As Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have told us, you need to say no to most everything if you’re going to get your best work done. Some people are very good at it. They include:


Tracy Morgan

An ambiguous Olsen twin

George Costanza

Some people aren’t very good at saying no: They include members of the Fast Company staff, easily convinced to grab one more beer, because hey, we like beer, and it’s not like we have deadlines in the morning.

So what’s the difference between us and Costanza?

Why can some people say “no” so emphatically while others cannot?

As James Clear writes at Buffer, the no-problem comes from they way we frame the declination: As a Journal of Consumer Research experiment suggests, it’s matter of whether we can’t or don’t.


The researchers, in an act of reckless disregard for statistical significance, asked 30 women to sign up for a “health and wellness” seminar. The subjects were asked to think on a long-term health goal and then split into groups of 10.

Each group got a different phrase to remember whenever they came across a health obstacle–stray beers, Krispy Kreme burgers, and the like. The phrases that would help them stay on track were:

  • Group 1: “Just say no”
  • Group 2: “I can’t miss my workout today”
  • Group 3: “I don’t miss workouts”

Then, at the end of each temptation-filled day, the participants received an email asking how they did that day. And if they caved and reached for the Krispy Kreme donut, they’d have to tell the experiment. This happened for 10 days.

How’d the people (and the words they reminded themselves by) do?

  • Group 1 had three people who made it through all 10 days
  • Group 2 had one person who made it through all 10 days
  • Group 3 had eight people who made in through all 10 days

Eight versus one is a big difference, no matter how lackadaisical the researchers were about their methods. Let’s investigate: Why does I don’t work so much better than I can’t?

Meaning it: The difference between I can’t and I don’t

There’s something subtle at work when your no means no: Psychologists call it empowerment. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author and director of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, says that the difference lies in whether we feel like we’re making a choice:


“I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. “I can’t” isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking “I can’t” undermines your sense of power and personal agency.

The Bottom Line: Don’t gives you power while can’t drains it from you. So even if you’re a sloth, feeling empowered let’s you keep your calendar clear–should you have an I don’t in mind.

Hat tip: Buffer

[Image: Flickr user Gideon Tsang]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.