Just Say No

“Tom, looks like we finally have something cooking!”

That’s how the call started. A long-time prospect was on the phone. I’d spent countless hours on the phone with this guy over the years, looking for one angle or another, trying to find a way we could work together. Nothing had ever come to fruition… until now.

Just Say No to Improve your business

And then he started to describe the assignment…

Small project.

Even smaller budget.

Quick turnaround.

Demanding specs.

I ran the numbers in my head – the hard costs would eat up the whole budget even with the cheapest solution, so we’d be adding our hours for free.

He probably figured that, because he closed his pitch by reminding me that this client was growing rapidly and would need a lot more research in the future.

“So Tom, can you help me out?”

I wanted to say yes. I really wanted to. I was trying to rationalize it by telling myself that a few hours of pro bono work were worth adding a high-growth client to my roster. And that all the effort I’d put into building this relationship could go out the window if he found someone else willing to do this work. Plus, I knew he was in a jam and I suffer from severe Nice-Guy-itis, so my instinct is always to bail people out.

I stalled. I asked him a random question, not because I needed an answer but because I wasn’t done thinking yet. I wanted to say yes, but something was bugging me.

My rational side pointed out that even if I did get more work from this client down the road, I would have already set a precedent that I’d cut my rates. Plus, if I accepted this assignment, my company name would be emblazoned on a piece of really crappy research.

And then my mind landed on what was really bugging me. It was a quote that had floated across my Twitter stream a few days earlier and stuck with me. I don’t remember the source, but it’s one of those things that’s been said a hundred different times by a hundred different people. The gist: every yes is a no to something else.

If I said yes to this, what was I saying no to? I pulled up Outlook and looked at my calendar. This summer is dominated by three things: a long-time client whose projects I really enjoy and who pays well; a new client in an industry I’m passionate about; and a variety of family activities. So which of those was I willing to say no to? Giving my best client the attention they deserve? Growing my business in an area I really care about? Spending quality time with my wife and children?

“What do you say, Tom?”

I took a deep breath, and did something completely out of my nature. “No. I can’t help you. I’m sorry. I can’t make that budget work for what you’re looking for. I can give you a few pointers on how to handle this yourself, but I can’t dedicate any of my resources to it.”

I know plenty of people who have no problem saying no. I am not one of those people. It was surprisingly uncomfortable, which is ridiculous since I was basically refusing to work for free. He spent a couple minutes trying to get me to change my mind. But the more he pushed, the more I knew I’d made the right choice.

Once we hung up, I felt great. Just as every yes is a no to something else, every no is a yes to something else. Saying no to him was more than just politely declining an opportunity. It was a way for me to reaffirm – to myself – my commitment to much more important things.

Am I going to get no-happy and start refusing every request that comes my way?


Am I still going to be nicer than I should?


But every once in a while, I’m going to say no. And I’m going to enjoy doing it, because it’s a great reminder of all the things I’m saying yes to.


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