Learning to Say No

by Jonathan Longnecker

Do you know when to say no to a new job? I don’t either. But I’m learning.

First of all, why is it so hard to say no? Because we want people to like us? Because it’s easier to say yes? Because it avoids conflict? Probably yes to all of the above. No one likes to be the bad guy, right?

“But I might not get that job and have enough money to keep my lights on!” you say. “My client will get angry and fire me!” “Deep down I want everyone to love me!” A lofty, but unattainable goal. Get over it.

To do something great, you have to get rid of all the things distract you from your goals. Steve Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” Go back and read that again. Think about it. Ok, moving on.

The thing is, it’s easy to stay busy and keep saying yes to things that don’t matter. A job you’re not excited about, tiny updates that eat away at all your spare time or anything that keeps you from looking at the big picture.

Steve Jobs once said, “I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.”

Learning to say no is learning who you are, who your company or brand is and the best way to use your time.

Know your strengths

For instance, people ask us all the time to design and build them a WordPress blog. Now, I don’t want to hate on WordPress too much, but we’re an ExpressionEngine shop. It’s what we believe in. We don’t believe in WordPress for most jobs. And you know what, we just don’t like developing with it. So I’ll try to convince them to use ExpressionEngine, but if it’s not what they want we’ll just tell them no thanks.

“What!?! Horrors!,” you say. “Turn down a potential job?” Absolutely. We’re a small shop and while we frequently like to push ourselves to do new things, we know our limits as well. That job wouldn’t be worth the learning curve at this point in the game.

Pricing Yourself

How about low budget jobs? Is it worth it to say no to them and go for the larger ones? That depends on where you’re at. I know everyone has to pay their dues and take what they can get. But at some point once you’ve gained some credibility and are putting out great work then it’s time to increase your prices.

We realized that we were putting just as much work into the low budget jobs as the higher budget ones. So we increased our prices and started saying no to a lot of smaller jobs. Man that was hard. But we knew the big picture was to land fewer larger jobs and work on things we cared about. Saying yes to all the low budget jobs would have kept us from making that happen.

Don’t be a jerk

Don’t forget there’s a right way to say no. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for just being up front and saying it’s not something we could do or were interested in. Be nice, and if you know someone else who you could recommend, do it. It’ll come back around, trust me. People remember things like that.

Think about it

Here’s your homework. Take 5 minutes and make sure you aren’t saying yes to things that are keeping you from your dreams. Slow down and think about it. Then muster up all the courage you can and tell those things no. It’ll get easier, I promise.

May 24, 2011

Business, Personal


  1. Thanks for that Jon. Re-presences for my why I do this stuff…and the potential to do more cool things that I want to sure is a powerful motivator to say NO!

  2. Awesome article and about issues that I struggle with. I’ve managed to turn down a couple of jobs, but it was really difficult especially since I didn’t have anything else lined up at the time, but at least one of them it turned out to be the right thing to do as I later found out that the client was very difficult to work with.

  3. Thanks guys! Sean you bring up another good point….if you’ve got a bad feeling about the client run away. Your gut is usually right.

  4. Good thoughts Jonathan. A great reminder that we need to revisit from time to time. I think you make an important point that we need to have goals and know where we are going so that we can define ourselves. This helps to make these decisions. I know I was personally challenged as I read this on that point. I realize I have some work to do and take some time to dream and articulate that for myself so I can make decisions that will lead me to that destination.

  5. Saying no is really hard to do and not something that comes naturally or easily. We’re still learning as we. Me especially!

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