Stop being so responsive. Instead, protect your time and energy for the things that matter most.

Staff Writer

Leadership is hard work, and good leaders spend countless hours learning the skills we need to (hopefully) become great.

That’s why when I found out about this incredibly simple technique for improving my effectiveness, I immediately put it into practice.

All you need to do, according to leadership coach Bill Bliss, is to use this magic word: “No.” In fact, Bliss advises that you say no 10 times as often as you say yes.

The problem, Bliss explains, is that many leaders “struggle with how to accomplish more when they know there is no way to add more time to the day. They clearly see opportunities for greater impact, yet the path to achieve these breakthroughs is blocked.”

The most successful leaders say no to all but a very few things. These leaders know that “Each time you say yes to something involving your time, you are actually saying no to countless other actions or activities you could be doing instead,” explains Bliss.

What Bliss is describing, of course, is what is known in economics as opportunity cost. When you make a choice to do one thing, you pay the cost of, as New Oxford American Dictionary describes it, “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives.”

Good leaders are hyper-aware of this compromise. And it often paralyzes us, because we don’t want to miss an opportunity. That leads to too many yeses that stretch leaders in too many directions.

Plus, explains Bliss, good leaders are attuned to the needs of their team members. They may even subscribe to Robert K. Greenleaf’s philosophy of The Servant as Leader: “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”

As Bliss describes, this leads to inner conflict because “leaders want to be responsive to the needs of others yet they must be able to balance those needs with the needs of the organization.”

The bottom line, says Bliss, is this: A) Everything shouldn’t be an equal priority and B) You can’t put everyone else before your needs and priorities. So, “Instead of agreeing to everything, you should save every yes for the projects or activities that will have the greatest impact.”

How do you know which few projects or activities those are? Bliss advises following these two steps:

  • Spend the first few minutes of your day visualizing the ideal outcome. As Bliss explains: “The first 10 to 30 minutes of a leader’s day are what set the stage or foundation for the rest of the day. This is the time when you establish your “intentions” for the day. If you don’t establish your priorities, you know darn well that other people will do this for you.”
  • Identify 2 to 3 top priorities for the day. “These priorities should support your goals for the week, month, quarter or year. In this way, you know you are always giving yourself an opportunity to take action and advance your important goals.”

After that, you need to say no a whole lot more. After all, as Warren Buffet famously said: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”