The Incredible Power of No
Today at a Glance
- The most successful people in the world achieve compounding success through incredible focus on a small number of projects and opportunities.
- You have a personal flywheel. Before it gets spinning, saying yes will help you identify the actions that will get it moving. Once it gets spinning, saying no will help you ruthlessly prioritize the actions that accelerate its pace.
- Use the 2-list strategy for establishing core priorities: Make a list of 25 priorities, circle the top 3-5 items on the list, mark everything else as the avoid-at-all-costs items.
- One helpful razor for saying no: If you don't want to do something RIGHT NOW, it's probably a no.
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I've always had a contentious relationship with the word No.
At a young age, I discovered that I had a tendency to overcommit—socially, academically, athletically, or whatever other arena I found myself in. I'd take on a lot, spreading myself across a large surface area, and then hustle my tail off to make it work.
I had—and have—a bias towards Yes.
Up until my 30th birthday, I never worried about it. In fact, I viewed my bias as an asset, not a liability.
Saying yes to (almost) everything constantly put me into new and uncomfortable situations—personally, professionally, athletically, and more. Anecdotally, I had found that these were the situations where I had experienced the most growth and luck. Saying yes led to unexpected encounters, new ideas, and meaningful relationships.
But when I turned 30, I began to notice that taking on more was no longer serving me well. I felt scattered—pulled in too many directions.
I observed the people in my life who I admired most: Their compounding success was not a result of taking on everything that came their way—it was a result of incredible focus on a small number of projects and opportunities.
That observation led to a realization: I needed to embrace No.
In today's piece, I'd like to dive deeper on the structural importance of saying no, share a framework for narrowing your priorities, and leave you with some simple decision-making razors for when to say no.
Without further ado, let's dive in...
The Flywheel Effect
A flywheel is a circular mechanical device that is extremely efficient at storing and deploying energy.
The flywheel transitioned from industrial obscurity to business prominence after management theorist Jim Collins coined the term "The Flywheel Effect" in his famous book, Good to Great. The basic idea was that great businesses execute small daily actions to get the flywheel turning, and then see a breakthrough where the momentum of the wheel supports itself with very little incremental input required.
It's a great framework for evaluating businesses and business models (note: I'll write a proper piece on it in the future!).
But I think it's even more interesting for evaluating your professional pursuits and the importance of saying no.
Your Personal Flywheel
Imagine your professional life as a big flywheel.
When you're starting out, the wheel sits still. It's big, scary, and intimidating!
Your first tasks are to (a) determine what will get it moving and (b) execute consistently to get it moving.
Once it's in motion, your task fundamentally changes.
Now you need to prioritize the most efficient deployment of incremental energy. One push at a sub-optimal angle will slow down the flywheel—it will hurt the momentum. You don't want to do that. You need to be sure that every incremental unit of energy you deploy is extremely purposeful.
Thinking about the most important factors in each stage:
- Stage 1—Get Moving: Experimentation (figure out what works), force (intensity), time (consistency).
- Stage 2—Keep Moving: Angle (double down on what works), force (intensity), time (consistency).
In other words, when you're getting started, you need to try a lot of things, but once you get it rolling, you just need to do a few things with extreme precision.
Mapping this to the idea of Yes and No, we can form a generalized mental model:
When you're in your 20s (or, more broadly, when you're trying to get your flywheel turning), "Yes" plays an important role in helping you determine what works. Saying yes lets you test and experiment broadly.
When you're in your 30s and beyond (or, more broadly, when you've got your flywheel turning), "No" plays an important role in helping you focus on only what works. Saying no lets you eliminate the noise and double down on the actions that compound most effectively in your life.
This is the structural importance of saying no.
Once you have your flywheel spinning, saying no gives you the headspace and bandwidth to capitalize on the 10x opportunities (by turning down the 1x opportunities that saying yes may have presented).
Now that we have established the importance of No, the challenge becomes determining your core priorities. How do you decide what is on your core focus list (the compounders)?
Let's turn to a simple strategy that I've found to be effective...
The 2-List Prioritization Strategy
Warren Buffett has a 3-step exercise for establishing priorities:
- Make a List: Write down your top-25 priorities on a piece of paper. I personally find it hard to come up with 25, so I've done the exercise with 10 in the past. Basically, just write down all of your professional priorities.
- Narrow the List: Go through the first list and circle only the top 3-5 items. These should be the absolute top priorities in your professional life. These are the items that will have the greatest impact on your trajectory—the compounders. These are the items that TRULY matter.
- Split the Lists: Write down the top 3-5 priorities on one list. This is your focus list. Write down the other items on another list. This is now your "avoid-at-all-costs" list.
The idea here is that it is impossible to have more than 3-5 core priorities. By separating the list into "Priorities" and "Avoid-At-All-Costs" we create a very clear red line that separates our Yes and No.
This is your first line of defense: When new opportunities arise, pull out your list and make a quick assessment of whether it falls into one of your priorities or if it should be avoided at all costs.
This forced elimination breeds focus.
Two Frameworks for Saying No
The final challenge: saying no to opportunities within a priority category.
Let's say one of my priority items is building a 1 million person email list. Just because a specific project or opportunity falls into this category, doesn't mean I should definitely take it on.
Launching a daily framework newsletter is definitely within this category, but I still need a way to determine if that is a project I want to take on at this moment in time, or something I should say no to.
In other words, it fits the macro priority, but does it fit the micro?
I have two useful decision-making razors I use here:
The Right Now Razor
When deciding whether to take something on, ask yourself:
"Do I want to do this RIGHT NOW?"
We delay on things because we aren't excited or motivated. If I am so enthusiastic about something that I want to take it on right that moment, odds are it's an exciting opportunity.
The New Project Razor
A slightly more robust version of the Right Now Razor.
When deciding whether to take on a new project, follow a simple two-step approach:
- Is this a "hell yes!" opportunity? If not, say no. If yes, proceed to Step 2.
- Imagine that this is going to take 2x as long and be 1/2 as profitable as you expect. Do you still want to do it? If not, say no. If yes, take on the project.
Using these two razors will force you to say no much more often—you'll only say yes to projects you are extremely excited about, which are ultimately those that drive asymmetric rewards in your life.
I'm 31 now and I'd say I'm cautiously optimistic about my relationship with No.
I'm slowly honing in on the exact priorities that will compound most effectively—the process is definitely iterative!—and I'm learning to say no without feeling like a jerk (I like "Sorry, I'm heads down on X" or "No, that's not something I'm focused on right now" as polite ways to do it).
By taking on less, I have time to focus on the professional priorities that truly matter—and the personal priorities that truly matter, like spending time with my wife and newborn son.
Learning the Power of No has been an enormous unlock for my life. I hope this piece arms you with the frameworks and tools to start finding that unlock in your life as well.
I'd love to hear from you:
- What stage are you currently in on the personal flywheel? Would you like me to write a deep dive on the topic and provide a few illustrative examples to bring it to life?
- Go through the 2-list exercise. What do you view as your top priorities? What surprised you as falling onto your avoid-at-all-costs list?
- What examples do you have of times when saying no led to something great?
Tweet your replies to me @SahilBloom or reply to this email and I'll do my best to get back to everyone!