Why (and How) Creative People Need to Say "No"

124 Comments

The following is a guest post by Kevin Ashton, the co-founder of the MIT Auto-ID Center, which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors.

He also created the Internet of Things.

Enter Kevin

A Hungarian psychology professor once wrote to famous creators asking them to be interviewed for a book he was writing. One of the most interesting things about his project was how many people said “no.”

Management writer Peter Drucker: “One of the secrets of productivity (in which I believe whereas I do not believe in creativity) is to have a VERY BIG waste paper basket to take care of ALL invitations such as yours–productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people but to spend all one’s time on the work the Good Lord has fitted one to do, and to do well.”

Secretary to novelist Saul Bellow: “Mr. Bellow informed me that he remains creative in the second half of life, at least in part, because he does not allow himself to be a part of other people’s ‘studies.'”

Photographer Richard Avedon: “Sorry–too little time left.”

Secretary to composer György Ligeti: “He is creative and, because of this, totally overworked. Therefore, the very reason you wish to study his creative process is also the reason why he (unfortunately) does not have time to help you in this study. He would also like to add that he cannot answer your letter personally because he is trying desperately to finish a Violin Concerto which will be premiered in the Fall…”

The professor contacted 275 creative people. A third of them said “no.” Their reason was lack of time. A third said nothing. We can assume their reason for not even saying “no” was also lack of time and possibly lack of a secretary.

Time is the raw material of creation. Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation. The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.

Saying “no” has more creative power than ideas, insights and talent combined. No guards time, the thread from which we weave our creations. The math of time is simple: you have less than you think and need more than you know. We are not taught to say “no.” We are taught not to say “no.” “No” is rude. “No” is a rebuff, a rebuttal, a minor act of verbal violence. “No” is for drugs and strangers with candy.

Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs. This interview, this letter, this trip to the movies, this dinner with friends, this party, this last day of summer. How much less will I create unless I say “no?” A sketch? A stanza? A paragraph? An experiment? Twenty lines of code? The answer is always the same: “yes” makes less. We do not have enough time as it is. There are groceries to buy, gas tanks to fill, families to love and day jobs to do.

People who create know this. They know the world is all strangers with candy. They know how to say “no” and they know how to suffer the consequences. Charles Dickens, rejecting an invitation from a friend:

“‘It is only half an hour’–‘It is only an afternoon’–‘It is only an evening,’ people say to me over and over again; but they don’t know that it is impossible to command one’s self sometimes to any stipulated and set disposal of five minutes–or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it, and to find his recompense in it. I am grieved if you suspect me of not wanting to see you, but I can’t help it; I must go in my way whether or no.”

“No” makes us aloof, boring, impolite, unfriendly, selfish, anti-social, uncaring, lonely and an arsenal of other insults. But “no” is the button that keeps us on.

###

This post originally appeared on Medium.

Posted on: July 31, 2013.

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124 comments on “Why (and How) Creative People Need to Say "No"

    • I think there are hardly any overnight successes. Even the people who get famous/rich/recognized from on day to the next worked a long time to get to this point.

      We only don`t see time and effort they put in to get to this point. We only see the sudden success. Most of the overnight successes went out for a long time to build their opportunities.

      Like

  1. What is your suggestion for getting those subjects to say “yes”?

    I am trying to get 10-20 creative people together to comment and publish posts on a site dedicated to helping others like them AND to promoting those who contribute.

    Not a lot of interest so far.

    What approach would you you suggest to get them to say “yes”?

    Like

    • 1. Don’t rely on others to give you permission to so something. If you business model starts with “If I could just get these people to do X,” you may need to reevaluate your model.
      2. You are asking subjects to give your site value rather than giving those subjects value. If you built an awesome site with a huge following, great content, etc. people will volunteer to write because you’re able to provide them with things like traffic, customers, etc. If you have nothing to offer them except their own work, they have no incentive to work for you.
      3. Cash works some of the time.

      Like

    • Offer them money. Creative people are usually very busy, mostly in ways to support themselves. If your website is meant to be a useful tool that many people can use, then some sort of compensation for the people who will contribute to is the least you do offer.

      Like

    • Christopher,
      I suggest you make it:
      1. easy for them to fulfill (a short article, better a recycled article of theirs)
      2. a 1-time commitment (don’t even hint at a future involvement)
      3. a win for them (drive as much traffic to it as you can and tell them in advance all the ways you will promote their contribution; provide at least 2 live links back to their site; offer an author profile page on your site).
      4. close the deal (close your contact email with: all I need to get started setting up your profile page is your okay. Just hit Reply).

      In short, the BEFORE strategy is: make an irresistable offer.

      The DURING strategy is: prove yourself to be fun, fair and forthcoming.

      The AFTER strategy is: you are now a known, proven, worthwhile entity.

      At any future time you can send an email that basically says “Care to do it again?”

      Good luck and good hunting.

      Like

    • Or if you can find some who already do that on their own and you’re essentially offering them a wider audience. But it sounds like you don’t have the audience or the contributors yet, so you have an idea. (And what seems like a big roadblock).

      Remember that your site would always be very low on the list of priorities for theses creative people if there’s no compensation involved. AND, it may sound selfish, but I know I don’t give away my best advice as an artist. I’ll give good advice, but not my best, there’s always some sense of competition. And if the only factor in who succeeds is who works the hardest and creates the most, then that says I shouldn’t give away advice at all.

      Like

  2. This is SO true! I work in real estate and constantly feel pulled in every direction. Over the years I’ve learnt to say NO to people who want to view houses on Sunday’s (to leave one day for family). But I need to adopt this in many other areas. Thank you. Great article.

    Like

  3. So…I wonder if the 3rd who answered were really worth their salt in creativity…and now I wonder if I am worth my creative salt since I took time to comment. Oh well…great stuff!

    Like

  4. I would even go a step further and argue that the process of saying “No” to others is the same as (or is correlated with) saying “No” to yourself.

    No to instant gratification.
    No to that quick distraction.
    No to that thing they “should” do.

    Could it be that the people who say no to others are the same people that say no to themselves?
    Or to reverse that question: are procrastinators people who easily say yes?

    Like

    • Anouar…you caught me!!!

      I think you hit it on the head. For someone in a state of resistance re: his or her creative work, any opportunity for distraction — our own or from someone else — will draw us away.

      What I need is to stoke the kind of motivation and determination that will make saying “no” a no-brainer — to others’ time-wasters and my own.

      Like

  5. The son of a wealthy family put time into perspective on a Reddit thread recently.

    “Rich people spend a lot of money on things that do not need to cost a lot of money. I have a maid coming to clean my apartment every week. Not because I can’t clean it myself, but having those 3 hours extra every week means more to me than the $300 I pay her.

    Similarly, when I need a haircut, I generally have the stylist come to my office and do it during lunch break. I obviously could go to his store like anyone else, but that would mean me taking 2-3 hours out of my day to do so; instead I’d rather pay him $800 to show up at my place and get it done in 20 minutes.

    In this regard money isn’t an issue, because I have more of it. And I know how to make more when I need to. I do not, however, know how to make more time.”

    Like

      • Agreed.

        I am drafting a plan to have a virtual assistant to take over my e-mails. I find that I am happier when I am not living in my “inbox”. No more changing to desk making a reactive responses and I am free to pursue a meaningful work.

        Yes, people are angry at me for not be in the loop. They can always call me or find someone to reach me if it is an urgent. Otherwise, accept and stick with it.

        If they want to no longer collaborate with me and then it open me up to new set of people who share same outlook.

        Like

    • I sincerely hope that the $300 is a monthly fee for 12 hours of work, and not the weekly fee for three hours of work! That said, I completely agree. I have what my kids call my “helpers” who scrub my bathrooms, vacuum/mop my floors, dust furniture and change sheets on the beds. That’s all I need them to do, and they do it very well. Hiring this type of work out achieves multiple purposes, not the least of which are time & physical energy saved.

      Like

  6. Hey Tim,

    This is a question of mindset:
    You accomplished many things across different “tracks” of life so to speak. In most tracks, a certain personality fits in and is more effective than others. Do you apply the yo-yo effect to periods of your life where you live what feels like a different life – different personality, interests, behavior? I’ve found for myself this works best to quickly integrate and gleam a wide-range of skills and thinking of people in a certain life.

    If not, what’s your process? If it’s too long to explain, can you point me the general direction?

    Thanks for writing and sharing your thoughts and the thoughts of those you know.

    Best,

    David

    Like

  7. I think you could remain this in terms of boundaries. We need boundaries in our lives where certain things do not mix, we will not cross, and we will not waste our time with. If you have predefined boundaries, then it is not a matter of just winging it.

    Saying no just for no’s sake seems a bit churlish.

    Like

  8. I feel like this everyday. After work I go home and spend 6-10pm on my webcomic. Weekends are a jumbled mess of getting everything else done as quickly as possible to do the same. I have no other time to pursue it, so I am always unwilling to squander my precious few hours to write, draw and slave over my computer. It sucks; I miss out on evenings with friends, parties, and other hobbies. But I do it because I have a goal in mind. I won’t become a professional cartoonist by playing video games or goofing around. It’s just the price you have to pay.

    Like

  9. It’s refreshing to hear that great creative people are consumed by creation. I recently started a blog and find the creation of content all consuming (and very rewarding). I was feeling a little frustrated with how long it takes me to write an article, it seems now that I am not alone and that in saying “no” to distractions I am in good company.

    Like

  10. Awesome post!

    It’s also good to remember that saying no is always much less offensive than we imagine it before hand. Saying no to a request will not instantly destroy a relationship. People will hear it and move on.

    Like

  11. “A ‘No’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘Yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble.” -Mahatma Gandhi

    It’s all in how you say it. You can learn how to say ‘No’ in a sincere, respectful, non-aloof manner…or you can use the it’s-not-you-it’s-me approach.

    I’ve politely turned down lots of low-bid graphic design projects. Usually, I would much rather have the time than the money. Rarely is anyone upset when I decline. And the few that are were probably destined to be difficult clients anyway.

    Great post!

    Like

  12. This is laughable. Is this still the blog of the author of the 4’hours workweek? Is this the site of a vagabond?

    I though this was a site about how to perform tasks in an efficient way, how to create the habits of effectiveness.

    Aren’t there a thousand places where one can tune and listen about the merits of hard work? Shouldn’t everyone outsmart his competitors, his boss, his co-workers and work more than them? Isn’t this a beautiful vision about how you should start designing your own life? Isn’t this what muses are all about?

    Does your journey actually end up where it has started? Is this a grandiose loop where creativity, smartness, effectiveness and rapidity, all of them, melt, fuse and boil down to simply … more work. To the urgent need of more time for more work.

    I find it strange, to say the least.

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      • true…we have a Princeton connection. My daughter and son-in-law graduated from there and were just married there on May 26th. Ali Smith 2006 and Noah Kennedy 2012 and 2013 with Master’s. Your book is profound!!!! Becky H. Smith, Ed.D., Bozeman, MT

        Like

      • Tim, hardly anyone would dare say openly the opposite.

        The problem I find with this piece is the old cliche of equating correlation with causation. Once you become a “creative person”, or in a creative mode to be more specific, then distractions can indeed be harmful. But, once in creative mode it is instinctively clear that you should indulge in your work, rather than surrender to niceties. When out of such a mode, refusing invitations, just so that you can become like those “creative people” is really pointless.

        Reading your book, my understanding was that the 80/20 philosophy should be used to get things done faster and efficiently. To allow for time quantiles, for friends, family and enjoyment. Using all your 20s to get as much 80s as possible is really not the underlying message I got.

        Accepting hard work just for the right things is not an argument but rather a tautology.

        Like

      • The point of the article, as I read it, is the usefulness of saying no to opportunities/work/etc that take time away from what you want to accomplish. The more successful a person becomes, the more other people will want things from them, so its important to learn to say know early on. Neil Gaiman once said that after he became a successful writer, he found himself becoming someone who answered emails professionally, instead of writing books. It’s a common result of success and productivity, more people will want something from you. It’s a good problem to have, but it is a problem. Saying no so you can focus on what own work and goals is a necessity. I don’t see how it conflicts with anything Tim talks about.

        Like

    • Do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life.

      I’m happy to work more less at my ‘day job’ in order to work more on my craft. If I could I’d work 12 hours a day on art and never feel like I was working at all. 4 hour work week was about doing less of the stuff that takes up your time, being more effective, so that you can do the things that you want. Maybe that means scuba diving for you, for me it means spending time in a dusty theatre.

      Like

      • Don’t get me wrong, (you can use as much pejorative words you like, if they are not followed by a line of argumentation, they are just opinions), I love Tim Ferriss blog posts as much as the next person.

        Mainly this is the reason I don’t find the last one particularly constructive, especially given the philosophy of his books and the rest of his posts.

        After all, you are in a website here, getting distracted from your creative obligations. How come you don’t follow the rules you admire?

        Simply because they are impossible to follow except if you are already under a creative spell.

        Please read Ron’s last post. It seems that 1/3 of the people actually replied and helped. What happened there? Could it be that this 1/3 was following Ferrisses mindset and was rich in time to spare, though creative, and not under the phobia of other people stealing your time?

        Like

    • I find this strange too. Of course it is important not to get distracted, but if you are truly working a 4HWW why do you need to say no to every single person?

      Like

  13. The NO makes me look more interesting, like she might be onto something ;)
    Spending time in human activities provides great inspiration. However, once I get focused on something is hard to discontinue, mostly at the beginning stage. After that, leaving your work for final reviews is less consuming… So there’s always some fun here and there, or in between ?

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  14. Really interesting. I’m not sure I agree 100% (how’s 85%?).

    Saying “no” is crucial but perhaps learning to apply the Pareto principle makes a big difference: a lot of people (not all) who are constantly busy are just bad at determining which things they should really spend their time on.

    Like

  15. I believe this is why the former Soviet Union and the East Bloc countries produced a relatively large quantity of talented artists, athletes and academics. The system said “No” for you. Once the system was gone, the talent dissipated as well.

    The insight is too true…

    Like

  16. I love that quote by Dickens. I feel the same way. A commitment to five minutes at a certain time can ruin a highly creative week. I’ve asked all my friends and acquaintances to e-mail me me at 4pm or or later the day of or the day before they want to get together and to name something valuable and specific they want to talk about or do. Otherwise I don’t want to hear from them. This get’s rid of 80% of my invitations and the few that remain I can say yes or no to spontaneously and clearly because I know where I’m at and what the interaction will affect at that time. It’s an amazing state of integrity and flow that I don’t think most people with two weeks to a month of packed calendars seem to relate to or enjoy.

    Like

  17. For me, learning to say “no” was critical to clearing more space in my life for creative time. I understand and appreciate a thoughtful “no”, but as a fellow creative – I also love sharing and understanding how people get through blocks, or moments of creative overload and so on.. I appreciate dialogue about examining – inspiration and imagination.

    Thanks, for the dialogue – MC

    Like

  18. While saying no certainly has its place, I think I prefer the Guy Kawasaki approach, which is to “default to yes”. In terms of leading a richer, more satisfying, more successful, happier life, building a strong network, etc., YES seems much more powerful than no. To each his own though, and I certainly respect differing opinions. There is more than one route to your dreams.

    Like

  19. Strange. A number of negative comments, when all that is being said is to not let others put their monkeys on your back. You are not obligated to do what others want you to do. Your life is your choices….. so why not do what you find valuable?

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      • Wrong. It is a life filled with doing what you want, with who you want. Not responding to unwanted requests isnt lonely, it is rewarding. Interesting way you have of looking at life, glad that it works for you….. but I wouldnt want to spend my life in reaction, trying to please others.

        Like

  20. Saying “No” is important and i fully understand the value of it.

    But what is really important is when, where, to who to say no. Because i don’t believe you are more productive by staying at home emptying your brain of all the creativity. And also, i think it just leads to inneficiencies because since you “have more time” you take it… Having less time in the contrary makes you more creative and often produce better results. We perform much better under stress (some of it, not too much) and with limited resources. The brain needs new inputs, new colors, new sounds, stimulus of all sorts in order to stay in its top creative potential.

    So saying Yes once in a while is far more important then juste saying no all the time, thinking it’S a waste of time.

    Like

  21. This is how I feel writing a screenplay. Everyone always wants to do something, I always say no because I’m working (after my day job) on a script. I feel like a loner, everyone feels me to be a hermit, and I’m at the butt of many jokes (at least in my own egotistical world). It’s good to hear that, perhaps, I’m on the right path.

    Like

  22. I wonder if the openness to say yes to so many things is an indicator of lack of direction, which might explain why creatives say no so much.

    They know exactly what they’re going for and exactly what they want, so they don’t don’t do everything on a whim.

    Like

  23. Kids have no problem saying no to everything. We then spend the next twenty years knocking it out of them even as we begin to realize the power of the word. Ironic.

    Like

  24. Hey Tim, great post and I especially appreciated the Dickens reference. This is some heavy material, saying “no” and being able to take the heat for it. I would simply offer that with a calendar you can schedule the stuff that really matters (a college football game with friends scattered across the country, a cousin’s birthday, lunch with your favorite high school teacher long retired, whatever) and know that you are not being some hyper-achiever jerk, just someone who treats time like water in the desert, precious and limited.

    BTW, I mentioned you in my latest blog post, here’s the link if you want to check it out:

    http://cedopontis.blogspot.com/2013/07/portrait-of-artist.html

    All the best,
    Jeno

    Like

  25. This has nothing to do with this blog but I have no idea how to get in touch with you or one of your assistants. 15 seconds to change the US forever – Roseanne Barr made it to the Presidential ballot – if the greater majority of the people in the US are unhappy with their representatives how do they weed out the real from the bullshit in the media come election time? Why not change the ballot to just simply say who the incumbent is? Silly, right? But if Roseanne Barr can make it to the ballot for President of the US why can’t we add one simple word that might let people know that whoever they’ve elected before is just not doing the job? I want nothing – no notoriety, no mention of my name. But I believe you have the clout (read exposure) to put this out there and maybe get it done. Something needs to promote change and I bet as simple as this is, it will meet some serious resistance. BTW, love 4 hour body. Thx – Mike

    Like

  26. “No” for all situations cannot be right. Selective decisions are needed. Creativity is not always achieved by hermits in isolation.

    Potential time bandits need sifting. People contacting experts and celebrities to write books etc will be low priority for those with no ego issues.

    Like

  27. A side question: If *exactly* the same blog post appeared on, would either site be getting a SEO penalty since it’s duplicate content?

    Thank you.

    Like

  28. What an interesting frame!

    I was struck as I read the article by the fact that while 67% of the creative respondents said “no” either explicitly (and rather nastily in Peter Drucker’s case) or tacitly 33% of them said “yes”. What was the difference? How did they, having the same 24 hours to create as the other members of the survey group, manage to help someone else’s project along willingly in addition to being creative enough to warrant an invitation to the project?

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  29. This is remarkably well thought out and to the point. Brilliant and true. Funny enough, when you become successful people want more of you, your time your effort and your presence. its so flattering but it takes you away from the work, which is what its all about anyway. Thank you for this. Perfect right now.

    Like

  30. hey just got an email response from a ‘tim-ferriss-wanna-be’ who quotes you in their email… So where this really falls down is when a “nobody who needs me more than I need them tells me in there email response that they are following your advice and if they don’t respond, I should try again. ” Fat Chance!!!!

    I have my own 4 hour work-week, and just deleted them!
    Great idea though (when you are at the top-of-game or financially independent where you don’t have to get out of bed unless it’s for digits with 5-7 zeros but not so good for the wanna-bees)… just my thoughts! And yes, I’m learning to say “NO”

    Like

  31. I just had to explain myself to someone yesterday. I said no to a golf game because i had a deadline. They said “couldn’t you do your work tomorrow? It’s just this one time.” What i’ve come to understand is that if i make an exception “just this one time” i will make the exception every time. I am either training myself to follow through with my commitments and hit deadlines, or i am training myself to procrastinate, and make exceptions. A lot of “just this one time’s” add up to “all the time.”

    Like

  32. I’m often contacted by people who want me to contribute to their book or blog or radio/tv show and I almost always say yes. I’ve found that every time I do, it creates new connections, opens new doors for me and exposes more people to who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish.

    Productivity isn’t just finishing a project. It sometimes includes building a brand or spreading a message.

    I think the important differentiator is saying “no” to things that are not in line with your goals or mission.

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    • Good point, but the question is: as an average person, what could you possible give to a world renowned creative genius he or she needs? I’m really interested, all ideas are welcome.

      Like

      • I’m a believer that we all have something to give even to the most intelligent and renowned person on Earth.

        That’s when it’s time to sweat it and do your homework. Brainstorm ideas 24/7 of ways to “help” or unique things you can do for that person, there’s always something you can offer. Maybe it’s a business idea, maybe you have to read their bio to find out little known facts about them? I don’t know, it all varies, but you want to make them WANT to meet you. Give them juice. Do whatever it takes to find common ground. THEN contact them.

        For example if I wanted to meet Tim Ferriss I’ll be reading EVERYTHING about him since the day he was born until what he had for dinner last night, then I’d brainstorm 20, 30, 40 ideas as many as I need until one really really good one stands out. Also, get to know your big guy through his work, for ex, since I know Ferriss doesn’t read his email (or rarely does) I would NEVER email him. Waste of time. There’s plenty of ways to get someone’s attention. Find out what works best for you and use it. This may seem a bit excessive but if you are not willing to do the hard work then don’t bother. This approach works because it shows genuine passion about them or their work. Passion is rare. We’re all attracted to it.

        But if all you want is to send a random email asking for their presence to your event or whatever you’re probably not that interested in meeting them then why would the big guy want to meet the little guy? Don’t waste your time and theirs, there’s no point on contacting people that are going to ignore you.

        Like

      • It sounds great in theory. Do you have examples when it worked well for you or someone else?

        For example, I met a Nobel laureate some time ago. I knew his mother was a piano teacher and he loved classical music. So I went to a CD store and as I live in Hungary, I bought music by a famous Hungarian composer and performed by one of the finest Hungarian pianists.

        He really appreciated it. But he did the interview as a favor, and it was a ‘thank you’ gift. It wouldn’t have worked the other way around.

        In my experience, reading everything about someone you want to meet is very risky. By the time you can actually meet them, your expectations will make you so nervous, that you will most likely fumble. Maybe it would be wise to outsource at least a part of it.

        Like

      • Interesting that you mention classical music. A long time ago I had the honor to meet a well renowned French cellist. I was fascinated by this man’s talent and sadly, a bit jealous of his abilities too. As a very young cellist myself I found common ground with our backgrounds to get to him.
        Also, I don’t mean homework as a task. I have an addictive personality so when I find someone interesting I usually read everything about them even if I don’t want to meet them (which is usually the case). So I think it should come naturally, not as another to do thing.
        Now you got me thinking about someone I really would like to meet but I can’t find anybody. Who would you like to meet?

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      • Tim Ferriss would be nice, but since it’s his blog, let’s raise the stakes. How would you meet Richard Branson?

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  33. Sometimes success blows. Part of the motivation to become successful is to be able to enjoy the fruits of success, fame, travel and accolades, having to turn them down to continue to produce is sometimes a bummer.

    Like

  34. Greetings Tim:

    First off, I owe you an apology. Last night I posted a comment and I failed to read the rules. I put my blog URL in the comment section as I referenced you in my blog. Sorry about that, it will not happen again.

    As to this post, it raises a compelling idea: Time is more precious than we think. We’ve all got the same 168 hours in a week but how we use them is up to us. Saying “no” is in effect saying “yes” to the priorities of the 168 hours. As I read the comments, I see a number of people who are making the necessary choices to put their true passions forward and declining social diversions.

    I do think that there are ways to say “no” without coming across like a jerk. Maybe it’s my “Midwest nice” tendencies, but I think it is rude to not offer a simple, short, “no thanks” reply. This presumes that the offer provides ample time to respond and is a reasonable request.

    I am a big, big fan of scheduling events way out on the calendar. This gives a reservation to do both the work stuff and the fun stuff. I personally think life is way too short to not have some fun and spend time with people you like. I also think that Mr. Drucker is flat-out wrong when he says, “…productivity in my experience consists of NOT doing anything that helps the work of other people…” I think helping others is (aside from being a descent thing to do) is a great way to increase your productivity. The old adage, the best way to learn something is to teach it, comes to mind.

    This was a great post, thanks for sharing it.

    Best regards,
    Jeno

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  35. Thanks for this greatly needed insight. I feel less of a curmudgeon now than before. So many myths about about creative people, e.g., that we don’t structure out time, that we’re not good stewards. In fact, we are experts and I, for one, have mastered saying “no.” Yet saying “yes” to some friends, the ones who know and respect my credo, is one of the stepping stones to long-term success.

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  36. Sebastian you are so damn right.
    Saying no is the key for getting things done but not only to invitations, discussions and similar distractions from other people.

    Equally important is saying no to projects, tasks and stuff that doesn’t take us the next step towards our goals. If something won’t grow my business or give me more free time, I won’t do it. It’s as simple as that (though hard to stick to!).

    Thanks for sharing this great article!

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  37. I have read a lot of the comments and would like to add, The ‘no’ from your head is certainly different from a ‘no’ from your heart. I like to ask the same question to both. Quite often the answers are different and lead to a separate consideration.

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  38. i think the golden line of this post is, “..They know the world is all strangers with candy..”

    and i believe that this is the best summary line which might help to explain Tim’s point, in my opinion.

    the explanation is simple;
    everyone has an agenda, an interest just like yours – its private and all personal – this is how people work.
    when you do stuff (etc spending time) that does not follow one of your agendas, your investing your time in this world for other man sake. that’s nice only if your agenda is to be nice.
    therefore, you need to say NO. more important than the assertiveness needed to refuse people suggestions and requests, is knowing how to identify the short term meaning and long term meaning of choosing YES or NO in each specific situation.

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  39. The only people who need to learn to say ‘no’ are people who are overly generous. But telling creative people to say no all the time is just teaching bad manners, or even being a bad citizen. Take the time. Don’t be self-important. Your creative self might even benefit from some thoughtful interaction with another.

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  40. It’s good to know I’m not the only one out there saying no a lot. The last line of your post certainly applies to me, I’m sure many people, including relatives think that of me. Thanks for the encouragement to stay focused and the permission to be different.

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  41. Fantastic post. Thanks for the emphasis on saying “no”.

    My favorite quotation on time/priority management is Annie Dillard’s: “A schedule defends from chaos and whim.” It avoid giving to outside distractions (chaos) and my own weaknesses (whim).

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  42. As The Blog of Tim Ferriss has been my homepage since I decided that I could no longer stand the Weather Channel’s constant fearmongering headlines I have seen the title of this post a hundred times or so over the past few days. It has kept my attention on the subject and I find that I remain fascinated by two things.

    1. Kevin’s particular worldview shows up in his choice to emphasize the two thirds of respondents (and non-respondents) to the invitation to contribute to the creativity project of the Hungarian professor who said no rather than the 1/3 who said yes.

    2. If we are looking at resourceful actions and choosing to aim ourselves toward those (rather than continuing with our non-resourceful actions) wouldn’t the most interesting topic of conversation revolve around contemplating the skills and mindset that enabled the 1/3 who were creative enough to be invited to be interviewed AND were able to say yes to the project rather than no?

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  43. An interesting concept. I did find the idea of being uncompromising slightly idealistic. I would challenge the notion of saying no to all of lifes possibilities outside of a discipline with the idea that there must be balance based on what makes you happy. What is the point of completing a beautiful painting if there are no friends left to enjoy it with you? I enjoyed your blog and found value in the content. Thank you.

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  44. Totally understood the quote by Dickens – he says it so very well. A hour scheduled for the afternoon can undermine the entire day as I contemplate it and have to prepare for it.

    One thing that this post doesn’t seem to address is the concept that helping others can be beneficial in many ways to the giver. Surely this doesn’t suggest that we should always be miserly with our time. Wouldn’t the occasional well-chosen moments to refocus by offering assistance to another, like answering an interview question, or a bit of mentoring, help to increase creativity and give renewed energy to our projects?

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  45. I say ‘no’ all the time.

    Mostly because…

    a) I’m an introvert
    b) I don’t wanna

    I find that a lot of people ask help with creative projects because they want the motivation to finish it – few of these projects come to fruition.

    I used to say ‘yes’ all the time because I was a Jill of All Trades and I wanted to be good at EVERYTHING.

    It hurt my ego to say “I don’t know – I can’t help you with that” because I loved figuring shit out.

    Now – it feels really great to say NOPE!

    xx Denise “No” Duffield-Thomas

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  46. Been teaching “NO” to my family and students for years. In fact, my son, (Musician and photographer) came across this blog article and sent it me, as an affirmation of a message received. Remember, God created the world and everything in it. Don’t you think He values our devotion to creativity as a show of honor to Him? I think so. For with our great deeds we improve the world, filling it with our own special Light, so that many may be illuminated and draw closer to us, that we may encourage and build them up. But first, we must pursue the Vision, and fulfill it as completely and beautifully as we have the Power to do so. We must finish, because our works are our legacy.

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  47. This is an eye opener. Most of us hate to say no, because of our, ugh, gutless way of thinking. Did I just say that? Well, when we don’t accomplish, we blame that person we could not say “NO” to. On the other hand, some will think, that by saying no, they will be shunned. Well, so what! At least you’ll get something done.

    Saying yes is by far, the easiest thing you will ever do. No backlash, no behind your back talk, and/or rejection. Can you imagine if your bride to be had said, no to your proposal? What a blow. Hmm! Perhaps not to some of you? :-)) Well, in our chosen line of work, we need to redefine the word, no. It can be said in the most gentle way, without sounding like one of your parents. Oops!
    No, can be your best friend, especially, when a dateline is looming ahead.
    One needs to be wise, and/or selective, when saying yes, and/or no.
    My take.
    Blessings

    .

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  48. This post is legendary, especially the ending. Saying “no” is probably one of the biggest challenges most people encounter, including myself! However, sometimes we simply have to be selfish in order to contribute. I remember reading the section about time wasters in 4HWW for the first time and thinking: “this is gonna be tough…”
    Thanks for sharing, made me think.

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  49. Even among the simple things in life, helping friends, etc., this is true. I once asked my brother-in-law for weekend help with his truck, and his answer was, “Ooh…a weekend? No, I only have so many of them left.”

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  50. This is essential information. With today’s lifestyles it is almost impossie to say ‘no’. Thank you for giving us permission to do so

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  51. Amen, Amen, Amen.

    A life crisis several years ago required all my attention and gave a “legitimate” reason to begin saying no to things I typically said yes to. Once the crisis had smoothed over, I realized the freedom and opportunity that came with saying no. Therefore, I decided to make it a habit. With my brain and spirit clear, I could focus on my own goals and priorities (some of which do indeed involve doing things for others). Saying no — without feeling any obligation to explain — has now become a habit, and I highly recommend it to others.

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  52. The reactions of those who balk when I indulge in the art of saying “No” is an interesting study in human behavior. Notice I said, “reactions”, a huge red flag to me for those who wish to monopolize my precious time and health. In my experience, those who “react” do so to manipulate me in order to serve their agenda. I could expound on the interesting non-adult behaviors that occur from “reactors” to the word “No”. Needless to say, insulting my intelligence never gets them anywhere with me. Contrast them with “responders”, who respect the word “No”, who respect my time and my health. For those, whose company I enjoy, I give the special gift of a “yes” once in a while to reward great behavior.

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  53. Great post guys…I’m 32 and I’ve only realized the importance of saying no in the last 6-months or so in all honesty. I truly believe every experience has something to offer but once I got into my 30s, I started realizing that my Yes-man mentality had cost me a lot of valuable time in my life which i couldve used working towards my goals. I feel this realization along with the 4-hour workweek has helped me become more cognizant of how I spend my time and how i can be more efficient, and I’d imagine there are a lot of Yes-men / Yes-women out there who could really benefit from dropping some more ‘No’s in their lives. Thanks.

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  54. This was a fantastic post! I LOVED these lines…

    “or that the mere consciousness of an engagement will sometime worry a whole day… Who ever is devoted to an art must be content to deliver himself wholly up to it,”

    and

    “But “no” is the button that keeps us on.”

    Wonderful read!

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  55. Excellent article! I totally get this. I work a great fair paying day job which will grow into a very healthy career, but then after work Ibspend almost equal time volunteering on Boards in my community and running a neighborhood civic association. I am involved in multiple projects that is new ground in my community. I have no time to date and am constantly reworking the infrastructure. Somehow I seem to see a bigger multidimensional organizatiin. People think I need to got an AA group, or that I bit off more than I can chew, but the truth is now is the time to get these things in order, or they never will. I say no all the time to everything but more ideas and work for myself. Im single, 43, no kids, so really, why not?

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  56. This also can work the other way around….. One of the owners of Cafe Gratitude (ever been there tim?) said to me “if your not hearing NO in your life, your living a small life.” :)

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