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Rule of 10: Switching from "Yes" to "No"

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

I’ve been presenting the concepts from Not Doing List to a few audiences in advance of the book launching this spring. Last week, someone asked me: “okay, so I just make a list of what I won’t do each week and try to stick to it?” Yes. But, it's tougher than it sounds. First, it’s difficult to select the right things for your #NDL. And the “sticking to it” part is extremely difficult. We like to think we can wake up one morning and just start saying “no” and spending our time in a better way. It doesn’t happen like that for most people.

Most of us continue defaulting to “yes”, because saying “no” is high-risk. Saying “no” to the wrong things can tank your performance at work. Saying “no” in the wrong way can destroy your reputation. It can burn relationships and maybe even end your career. Fear, guilt, and shame set in every time we’re about to say “no.”

We think:

“What if I miss something important?”

“What if the person doesn’t like me as much after I say ‘no’?”

“What if I don’t appear busy enough and they fire me?”

“What if saying ‘no’ hurts my chances of getting promoted?”

... and the most common: “Will my boss even let me say ‘no’?”

In reality, the much larger risk we face is saying “yes” too frequently to the wrong things and running out of time for what matters.

Every “no” is actually allowing us to say “yes” to something more important that will grow our business and career.

During a Forbes interview for the book this week, I was asked an important question: what’s the fastest way to overcome the fears of saying "no?" My response: zoom out and apply the Rule of 10.

Applying the Rule of 10

This is an approach adapted from Suzy Welch who wrote about the topic in her book 10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea. This tactic is a helpful way to hold yourself accountable for actually sticking to your #NDL. It’s quite simple. Ask yourself whether the thing you want to skip, dodge, or avoid will matter at three different points in the future.

When considering whether to say "no": First, will it matter in 10 days? Then, will it matter in 10 months? And finally, will it matter in 10 years? Asking these quick questions will help you zoom out from your current yes/no decision and add long-term perspective.

Think about it: when you look back 10 days, or especially 10 months or 10 years, it will be hard to point to specific meetings, distractions, emails, customers, ideas, reports, or people that you avoided. It would be even harder to recall a specific negative event that came as a result of not doing something today. These all blur into the background. However, you can likely recall the large accomplishments that happened 10 days, months, or years ago. You will remember the difficult and important things that drove your success, likely forever. Time smooths over any choppy waters that result from us not doing something unimportant.

When you apply the Rule of 10, you flip your mindset. You start to be driven by these fears instead when faced with the choice to say "yes" or "no":

"What if I miss my goals because I said “yes” to something that was a waste of time?"

"What if I have to explain to my boss that I spent my time on low value things?"

"What if someone thinks I’m a slacker because I didn’t spend my time what's important?"

"What if my colleagues think less of me because I didn’t make time to hit my goals?"

"What if I'm stuck in the same job forever because I didn't free up time for more important work?"

“There are two powerful words in business: Yes and no. And too often you don’t use them.”
–Brain Niccol, CEO of Chipotle

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