Five Ways To Say “No” So You Can Finally Reclaim Your Focus

Staying productive is all about consciously deciding what not to do. Here’s how.

Five Ways To Say “No” So You Can Finally Reclaim Your Focus
[Photo; Phodesina/iStock]

It isn’t news that culture is obsessed with doing–with being in motion, with being occupied, with being busy. But the upshot of all this doing is that we spend very little time deciding exactly what we should be doing in the first place.


Real productivity is more than just activity, after all. And when we’re asked to act upon (or ignore) hundreds of updates, requests, and interruptions every single day, to actually step back and decide can be much more difficult than to simply do. Amid all this bombardment, being truly productive depends upon your ability to say “no.” In other words, what you don’t do on a daily basis is at least–if not more–important than what you actually do take action on.

Of course, saying “no” is easier said than done. Many of us have an intuitive desire to please others, to explore every opportunity, to take on more than we can handle, and worry about the consequences later. But if you can master the art of saying “no,” you can prevent your time and focus from being held captive by a constant barrage of requests and distractions. Here are a few practical techniques that can help.

1. Make A “Stop-Doing List”

Saying “no” is all well and good as an abstract concept, but you can’t do it consistently without a plan. The first step is to identify what activities are creating the biggest drag on your productivity–and to actually list them out. I picked up this tip from best-selling business author Jim Collins, who makes a habit of sitting down at the outset of every year to draw up a “stop-doing” list.

The idea is to identify a short-list of habits you want to avoid in the new year. Some things on my “stop-doing” list:

  • I don’t schedule meetings in the morning (my prime creative time).
  • I don’t treat emails from strangers as urgent.
  • I don’t read the news at work.

But keep it short, and focus on just a few key things you can really commit to avoiding. A brief list of simple, broad-strokes ideas is better than a long, overly detailed list of pet peeves.


2. Write Tomorrow’s To-Do List Tonight

The easiest way to avoid distraction is to hit the ground running. That’s why I like to close out my workday by jotting down in advance my to-do list for the day ahead.

If I wake up with a clear picture of my key priorities, I’m infinitely more productive and relaxed. What’s more, I’m also much better at deciding what not to do and which requests to turn down, because what I need to do is already mapped out–I’ve already decided. By contrast, kicking off the day without a plan opens you up to working reactively, letting other people’s demands dictate what you do with your day.

It’s a lot easier to say no to unwanted additions to your to-do list if you’re crystal clear on what you want to accomplish and why.

3. Switch To Batching Your Email Time

Inefficient emailers operate as “reactors,” relying on notifications and near constant monitoring to nibble away at an endless pile of unread messages throughout the day.

Productive emailers, on the other hand, are “batchers,” setting aside a few time slots each day to power through their inboxes–and say “no” to email interruptions outside those designated windows. Not surprisingly, batchers , happier, and less stressed out at work.


Here are a few tips for shifting toward a batched approach:

  • Set aside two or three 30– to 45-minute windows each day for processing your inbox, giving it 100% of your focus.
  • Turn off all push notifications and instead use an app like Inbox When Ready to show you new messages only when you want to see them.

4. Teach People To Expect You’ll Say “No”

Whether it’s in your inbox or in-person, don’t fall victim to the assumption that you have to say “yes” to every single request. If you do, others will quickly pick up on that and take advantage.

This is especially true for things you probably can go either way on–a request for an interview or coffee meeting, an invitation to speak at a conference, or a pitch to demo a product. In most of these cases and many others, the person doing the asking is just testing the waters. They’ll be happy if you say yes, but they don’t feel entitled to your time.

So rather than assuming that every asker expects you to say “yes”—and resenting the unwanted obligation—experiment with assuming that they already think it’s a long shot. Reframing the situation like this makes it easier to put seemingly pushy emails or phone calls into perspective so you can consider the opportunity with a relaxed attitude.

Once you level the playing field between the possibility of saying “yes” and the possibility of saying “no,” it becomes easier to gracefully decline inquiries that don’t match your priorities.


5. Swap “I Can’t Do That” With “I Don’t Do That”

Another way to reclaim your focus is through simple tweaks to how you communicate. Language is powerful, and the way that you say “no” can have an outsize impact on people’s perception of you at work. In a 2012 study reexamined last month by New York magazine, researchers found that it was easier for people to stick to resolutions if they said “don’t” instead of “can’t.”

So, for instance, you might say, “I don’t schedule meetings before 11 a.m.” instead of “I can’t schedule meetings before 11 a.m.” (Scroll or swipe back up to my “stop-doing” list above and you’ll notice there are all kinds of ways to make this change.)

When you say you “can’t do” something, it may implicitly convey weakness and inadequacy—giving the sense that you might want to do the task but aren’t actually able to. Whereas when you say you “don’t do” something, it conveys power and conviction, a feeling of a rule to which you are staunchly committed.

And make no mistake: Preserving your productivity and defending your focus does take commitment. But once you actually decide to do it, it’s something you can keep saying “yes” to.

Jocelyn K. Glei is the author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. Follow her on Twitter at @jkglei.