Early in your career you should almost never say “No thank you.” Later on, you can and should use it judiciously. Eventually you earn the right to use it more often, turning down offers that don’t fit your own priorities, while still saying yes to things that are important to those you care about even if they are less important to you.

Saying “No thank you” is a choice

My recent article on “Revisiting a Leader’s Most Important Choices” dug into the point that there are almost always a very small set of choices that have the greatest impact. Prioritization is about choosing to focus on the things that have the greatest impact and choosing not to spend time on things with less impact.

Saying “No thank you” is another way of saying you choose not to do something. It’s different than saying “I would if…” or “I can’t because…” When you say “if” or “because” others might find a way to deliver on the “if” opportunity or remove the “because” barrier. But, “No thank you” is condition-free and definitive. Hence, it’s power.

Own your choices. In business settings, know you don’t have to take on every job, customer, project, meeting or task that’s offered to you. Choose the ones that advance your own mission or the missions of people and organizations you care about. Let someone else take on the rest.

Avoid it early in your career

Early in your career, building your own strengths has to be high on your priority list. Strengths are a combination of innate talent + learned knowledge + practiced skills + hard-won experience + apprenticed craft-level caring and sensibilities.

When someone offers you the opportunity to take on a job, customer, project, meeting or task early in your career, in almost any case, you’ll add to your knowledge, skills and experience. In many cases, the people offering you the opportunity will know or sense that that opportunity will help you grow.

Early in your career, have a bias to trust those people’s judgement and say “Yes” to things that may not seem directly important.

Use it judiciously later

After you’ve built a degree of knowledge, skills and experience, you’re better able to prioritize things. While you’re still not to the point of knowing enough to turn down opportunities on your own, you will be better able to engage in discussions with people inviting you to take on jobs, customers, projects, meetings or tasks.

Ask them to explain why they think it’s a good idea for you to engage in these things. Push them on why it’s the best use of your time in terms of impact on the organization’s mission, your team’s needs, or further building your own strengths. When the explanation makes sense, engage. When it does not, say “No thank you,” passing the opportunity on to someone else.

It’s hard to give your boss or a customer an unvarnished “No thank you.” But they will appreciate your telling them you’re not the best person to do what they need done – and referring them to someone else who may be.

Still later, use it more often

At some point you cross the divide from spending more time building your own strengths to spending more time helping others. At that point, you’ve earned the right to say “No thank you” more often.

You’ve earned the right to turn things down without a lot of explanation or even any explanation at all. People that know you and appreciate you will appreciate your choices.

Those that know you less well and appreciate you less, may consider your “No thank you” selfish. And, they may be right.

Sometimes you choose to be selfish. It’s your choice. Just know how that’s going to make others feel.

Other times, you may choose to do something that’s less important to you, but more important to someone or something you care about.

A friend asked me to join a task force for a cause I was less interested in. But he cared about that cause and needed my help. I told him that he was important to me and if this was important to him, I would be delighted to help.

The power of “No thank you” is in owning your choices. Balance that with a growing understanding of the unintended consequences of those choices for yourself and others.

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