How do you know when to say no?

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As life gets busier, there’s no shortage of things that can take up your time, energy, and resources. There’s also no shortage of people telling you to say no, from how to say no effectively to dozens of different ways of saying no. Few, however, address how to answer this fundamental question:

How do you know when to say no?

Let’s look at 3 basic factors that an opportunity presents:

1. Value. Is the opportunity valuable? Does it contribute to your overall personal or professional goals, either as an individual or an organization? Some opportunities may seem awesome but won’t actually contribute to your end goals.

2. Scarcity. How often does the opportunity or one like it come by? For example, authors submit review copies of their books to me on such a regular basis that the review copies now act as furniture. The opportunity there is not scarce. Having lunch with the President of the United States, however, would be a highly rare opportunity.

3. Commitment. How much commitment does the opportunity require? The reason there are piles of review copies of books in my office that have not been reviewed is that reading a book is a fairly serious time commitment if the review is to be any good, so I haven’t done it. Reading someone’s blog post or looking at their business plan can be tremendously resource-consuming. Writing an endorsement on LinkedIn can be relatively quick. Retweeting something on Twitter requires nearly no resource investment.


Take the time to actually score each opportunity you’re trying to evaluate. Award an opportunity up to 10 points for each category above, then set yourself a threshold for what you will and won’t accept for opportunities. Maybe a score of 20 would be your minimum. For example:

John Smith wants me to retweet his blog post about fried Twinkies.

  • V: 0. No value to what I aim to accomplish.
  • S: 0. Retweet requests from John are nearly daily. He’s kind of a jerk that way.
  • C: 10. Easy and fast.

Verdict: 10/30. Decline.

The President of the United States wants to have lunch and discuss social media.

  • V: 10. I do a lot of work in SM, so having lunch with the President might be useful to gain insight into his views.
  • S: 10. I rarely get lunch requests from heads of state.
  • C: 3. Going through the security clearance process and hauling it down to DC is a pain in the butt.

Verdict: 23/30. Accept.

Do you need this level of measurement in order to judge whether an opportunity is worth your time? Maybe. Certainly if you work with others, this opportunity judgement framework is useful for them to communicate with you an opportunity’s value in a very compact, tight way. Likewise, if you are responsible for passing along opportunities to other people, you might adopt this framework to communicate to them the value of something that’s crossed your desk.

Try it out and let me know how well it works for you.

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6 responses to “How do you know when to say no?”

  1. […] morning, going through my morning news, I saw How do you know when to say no? by Christopher S. Penn. It may be the geekiest way to decide how to say yes or no to something but […]

  2. Great stuff, Chris. This underscores the notion that you need to make decisions based on logic instead of emotion. I’m guilty of taking on projects and opportunities because of how I *feel* about it, rather than what the logical benefits will be for partaking. Emotion rules, and given the opportunity, will rule your to-do list.

    Having the framework for objective analysis will at least give us ammunition in the fight against emotion.

    I’m not saying feeling emotion is a bad thing, but it’s certainly a force in driving our decision-making. And let’s face it, we often cave. I know I do. Thanks for this post.

  3. Very sage advice, and I love the points system. Unfortunately for too many folks, they will have to make sure they even know what their personal and professional goals are – and be married to sticking with them – before they start using this process… Excellent advice as always.

  4. Christopher, for someone like me — who has had to learn the hard way that she has a problem saying “no” — the scoring system you suggest is fairly appealing.

    Saying “yes” or “no” to implementing said scoring system:

    V: 10 I know that saying no is not built into my personality; even knowing this, I still say yes too often. Having to score things this way causes me to consider situations consciously and intentionally, which enables me to set healthier boundaries.
    S: 7 I get occasional suggestions on how to learn to set better boundaries. This isn’t the first, and I know it won’t be the last.
    C: 3 Implementing this scoring system will take me a step further in changing how I think. This isn’t an easy task, and I know it requires dedication and hard work on my part.

    Verdict: 20/30 Accept. : )

  5. Excellent framework to manage time and evaluate opportunities. Great, simple idea.

  6. Rhonda Holscher Avatar
    Rhonda Holscher

    I love the idea and I’m posting it on my bulletin board to remind me to do this with each opportunity. While I do not have an issue with saying ‘no’ most of the time I find this very useful in evaluating when to say no, and for those instances when I have a hard time saying ‘no’ this can be a useful in explaining why.

    Thanks for posting it.

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