Learn to say no and focus on your three critical business drivers

By Mark Schaefer

The other day a friend offered to post my content as a marketing column in his regional lifestyle magazine. It would require almost no work on my side and potentially expose me to a different audience. A no brainer, right?

I said no. Here’s why.

The critical three

I once worked with a business leader who would constantly ask, “What are your critical three?” He wanted to be sure you could tell him the three things you needed to succeed in your role, that you had plans in place to do it, and that you were focused on the outcomes. When one of the critical three had been accomplished, you could bring in a new priority.

As a busy entrepreneur or company leader, you must also maintain a laser-focus on your critical three activities, the priorities that drive your business. While there could be some benefit to this little bit of promotion I was offered, there is also a potential downside — distraction.

I primarily work with big companies like Dell, Cisco, and Microsoft, and this publishing channel probably would have sent me a flurry of small business leads. But I don’t work with small businesses, and processing those leads is a cost and a distraction from the core business, especially since I have strained administrative resources.

Even if re-purposing the content seems easy, there would be some work involved, like approving a re-write, responding to an administrative issue, or answering a reader question. If you keep accepting these nagging little responsibilities, they can gradually add up to one big distraction.

Beware of the “easy yes’s”

The entrepreneurs I admire don’t take the “easy yes’s.” They know that every moment of their time must be focused on their ultimate goal. Learning to say “no” is a lesson I’ve had to learn the hard way, believe me! I hate saying “no” to any opportunities, but every opportunity also has some cost.

In my own experience, when I found myself doing the “easy yes’s” I would look at my to-do list at the end of the day and find that perhaps that’s ALL I did that day!

One of Gary Vee’s famous mantras is that “one is greater than zero,” meaning that some activity — any form of self-promotion (even if it reaches 5 readers) — is better than no activity. At some level that might be true, especially if you’re just starting out and your business priority is to build awareness. But that’s not necessarily a smart strategy if you’re running a business and these little requests drag you away from your critical business priorities. And they will.

After all, a hundred of those “ones” add up to 100, and that’s not better than zero if it takes your eye off the ball and distracts you from your core business and ultimately leads you to exhaustion.**

**Note: This does not apply to Gary Vee. He seemingly does not get exhausted, but I do.

Your thoughts?

SXSW 2016 3Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Illustration courtesy of Flickr CC and Frank Elwood.

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  • Anja Skrba

    I agree with you Mark that if you keep accepting little responsibilities, they can gradually add up to one big distraction! And also, I think we all need to work more on learning to say ‘no’ to certain things…not just in business, but in general.

  • Frank Phillips

    It seems a matter of perspective. As you say, when you are trying to build awareness your big three are probably much different than later on. Thanks! This goes into my Evernote.

  • Thanks Anja.

  • Awesome. Thanks for letting me know Frank!

  • Definitely agree with the seemingly paradoxical benefits of saying “no”. I have learned to say no to projects that don’t suit my approach, values or business model. Similarly, saying no to working with personalities that cause problems. Great post, as always!

  • Claytonjay101

    I actually wrote something on this a few months ago entitled “80% of people spend most of their time working on the wrong stuff”. It’s remarkable how much time you can waste if you don’t have goals, like you said the critical three. If what you are doing does not map to your goals or to-do items, don’t do it.

    This is really difficult at a small company because you constantly have stuff flying everywhere but that’s what it takes to succeed if you want to increase your capacity.

  • Inspired by the Mantra the business leader gave you, Mark.
    As always, learnt a lot from this post of yours too. Thanks!!

  • Ha! Well said Colm!

  • Really great point. A small company simply cannon afford the “ones” : )

  • Many thanks for taking the time to comment my friend.

  • Gordon Diver

    Fantastic reminder Mark. It’s so easy to get distracted. Thanks for sharing

  • Mark, good reiteration of our conversation the other day. Yes, every distraction, even a small one, that takes you off of your game when you have specific tasks and priorities you need get done, is a time-drain. There is only so much time in the course of the day. I agree with you that we need to be more disciplined. This requires being laser-focused in order to accomplish our prioritized tasks. This is a realization we need to reiterate to ourselves as an affirmation that there is a very good reason to say no instead of yes. Also, there will always be sink-holes of getting distracted by doing more pro-bono work in lieu of focusing on potential revenue generating tasks that are on our task list that will drive business.

  • A pleasure, Mark!

  • It’s really hard to say no, particularly when you are a small business owner. You worry that one day the work will run out so you take on everything and then do a poor job. I’ve recently started creating anti-personas for the clients that didn’t work out so that I avoid taking on the wrong clients again.

  • Thanks sir.

  • Thanks for your comment David.

  • That is so funny. Anti-personas. I have had a few of them myself, especially early in the business! Live and learn.

  • Gordon Diver

    Welcome. Have a great weekend.

  • Carole Alalouf

    I loved this article. It’s so hard to say ‘no’ when you aren’t yet fully established, and you’re experiencing those peaks and valleys. You feel you have to grab every scrap you can. But I’ve recently come to realize that you’re absolutely right. The only way to achieve the growth you’re after is to keep a laser-sharp focus one where you want to go. It feels like a bit of a leap of faith but there’s always a bit of that in entrepreneurship, anyway, isn’t there?

  • Mark, it it is so easy to endorse something, and someone, when credit is due. Great insight in your book KNOWN. I asked my wife to purchase your other book, “The Content Code”. I was going to purchase Content, Inc. by Joe Pulizzi, but thought I would stick with your guidance. Hopefully, it is not a regurgitation of your other books and provides me with more substantive Insights.

  • My pleasure, Mark!

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