Saying yes is easy. Saying no is hard.

Once you reach a decent level of professional success, lack of opportunity won’t kill you. It’s drowning in 7-out-of-10 “cool” commitments that will sink the ship.

I knew that successful people had a habit of saying “no,” but I didn’t understand how or why. I needed help understanding the mechanics of saying “no” and reaping the benefits, so I asked hundreds of brilliant people: In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realizations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips?

The answers I got to those questions formed part of what became my next book, Tribe of Mentors. Here are a few of my favorite responses:

Strategy #1: Take the Epitaph and Deathbed Tests

Tim Urban, one of the world’s top bloggers, has a strategy for saying “No” he calls the Epitaph and Deathbed test.

Here’s how it works:

“I think about what I might call the Epitaph Test. When I find myself with an opportunity, I ask myself whether I’d be happy if my epitaph had something to do with this project. If the answer is a clear no, it probably means it’s not actually very important to me. Thinking about your epitaph, as morbid as it is, is a nice way to cut through all the noise and force yourself to look at your work from a super zoomed-out perspective, where you can see what really matters to you. So I try to make my “yes” list by thinking about the Epitaph Test, and potential time commitments outside of that definition fall on my “no” list. For me, the Epitaph Test is usually a reminder to focus my time and effort on doing the highest-quality and most original creative work I can.”

For my social life “yes” list, a similar test could be called the Deathbed Test. We all hear about these studies where people on their deathbed reflect on what they regret most, and the cliché is that nobody ever says they regret spending more time in the office. That’s because a deathbed offers people a level of zoomed-out clarity that’s hard to get to in our normal lives, and it’s only when we’re lacking that clarity in the fog of our day-to-day rush that we’d think it makes sense to neglect our most important personal relationships. The Deathbed Test pushes me to do two things:

  1. Make sure I’m dedicating my time to the right people with the question, “Is this someone I might be thinking about when I’m on my deathbed?”
  2. Make sure I’m spending enough high-quality time with the people I care about most with the question, “If I were on my deathbed today, would I be happy with the amount of time I spent with this person?” An alternative is thinking about other people’s deathbeds — “If X person were on their deathbed today, how would I feel about the amount of quality time I’ve spent with them?”
  • How can you immediately apply these 2 questions to your life?

Strategy #2: Run the decision by imaginary great-grandchildren

Terry Crews, actor and former NFL player, has a useful strategy for saying “no.” Similar to Stephen Covey’s imaginary 80th birthday exercise, Crews has an imaginary conversion with his great-grandchildren.

According to Crews:

“One approach I use is imaginary great-grandchildren. I talk to them all the time. I ask them about decisions and relationships and whether or not to continue them. They tend to speak loud and clear. “Grandpa, you shouldn’t do this, or you need to leave these people alone because we will be affected negatively, or worse, we won’t exist.” Those moments show me that this whole thing is bigger than me. It’s the realization that there is a “will to pleasure,” a “will to power” and, in the words of Viktor Frankl, a “will to meaning.” You won’t take a bullet for pleasure or power, but you will for meaning. So you sometimes have to do what I call a “crowd-thinner.” One wrong person in your circle can destroy your whole future. It’s that important.”

If you want to start saying “no” to the wrong stuff, this strategy could immediately bring clarity.

  • What decisions could you run by your imaginary future grandchildren, right now?

Strategy #3: Become aware of your emotional expression

Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and New York Times bestselling author summons the courage to say “no” by becoming aware of her emotional expression.

Specifically, Salzberg does the following:

“I’ve gotten better at saying no to invitations, though I still have a ways to go! I picked up this tip from a friend, who felt she could hardly ever say no when she really needed to. In her meditation, she consciously brought up situations where she might have better said no, and she looked at what was happening in her body as she replayed the questioning. She tuned into the sensations spiraling through her stomach up into her chest, restricting her breathing. It was almost a kind of panic, a visceral expression of “maybe they won’t like me anymore.” She learned the feeling of those sensations, and the next time she was at work, or with her family, and that very kind of question was asked and she felt those sensations beginning, she used that as her feedback to say, “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” With a little space, she could then say no. Awareness of the emotional expression in her body was key. I’m trying to follow in her footsteps.”

  • How aware are you of your current emotional expression?
  • How could you immediately get clear so you can say “no” to the wrong stuff and focus on the essential?

Strategy #4: Clarify your long-term goals

Samin Nosrat, the well-recognized and world-class chef, has a very simple way of getting to “no.”

Specifically, Nosrat does the following:

“The more clear I am about what my goals are, the more easily I can say no. I have a notebook into which I’ve recorded all sorts of goals, both big and small, over the last ten or so years. When I take the time to articulate what it is that I hope to achieve, it’s simple to refer to the list and see whether saying yes to an opportunity will take me toward or away from achieving that goal. It’s when I’m fuzzy about where I’m headed that I start to say yes to things willy-nilly.”

  • How clear are you on your long-term goals?
  • How honest is your current life and pursuits with your long-term dreams?

Strategy #5: What would a security firm do?

Steven Pressfield is the best-selling author, gets himself to “no” by asking himself the corky yet insightful question:

“I got a chance a couple of years ago to visit a security firm, one of those places that guard celebrities and protect their privacy — in other words, a business whose total job was to say no. The person who was giving me the tour told me that the business screens every incoming letter, solicitation, email, etc., and decides which ones get through to the client. “How many get through?” I asked.

“Virtually none,” my friend said. I decided that I would look at incoming mail the same way that firm does. If I were the security professional tasked with protecting me from bogus, sociopathic, and clueless asks, which ones would I screen and dump into the trash? That has helped a lot.”

  • What benchmark do you use to give yourself immediate clarity?

Want to become the best in the world, yourself?

Buy my new book Tribe of Mentors, and learn simple strategies to quickly become the best in the world at what you do.

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