Busy for the sake of busy? Or, are we just not saying “No” enough?

A quick rant from a friend that’s appearing all too common:

“This afternoon, I had a meeting set up with two other well respected entrepreneurs about a passion project that I agreed to help with. The meeting had been rescheduled from earlier in the week due to an unexpected travel conflict on their end. I waited on the phone for ten minutes before giving up and emailing them to find out where they were. I have yet to hear back.”

“What is wrong with the world today? Do you have the same problem with people showing up to meetings late or not at all? Honestly, I feel discourage. All of these people say yes to being in a certain place at a certain time, and I make my plans around that commitment. I try my best to hold up my end of the bargain. Why can’t professional people show enough respect toward their peers to do the same? If they are too busy to show up on time (or at all), why do they say yes? Is it just me?”

It’s not just her. I, too, am losing time in the inefficiency of scheduling, trading emails with people who don’t return calls, don’t confirm appointments, and fail to show even after an appointment is made. I’ve sat in coffee shops for 30 minutes waiting for someone who “couldn’t pull away for work,” and showed up to headquarters after Ferry-tripping across the Bay to meet someone who confessed to me he “double booked,” and “meeting with the investor was more important,” so he pushed me back by two hours.

In the time I’ve spent sitting (and reading, and perusing), I’m left wondering: what’s happening? Are we trying to do more, or is it taking us longer to do things because our tools are simpler? Have expectations changed? These are the thoughts I’m working on:

Is our communication scheduling making us more efficient, or just lazier?

When and why do you say Yes to things?

When and how do you say No to things?

And if you do get mixed up in all of the jumbles, do you take the time to give feedback to other people whose behavior negatively affects you? Or do you say nothing


In collegiate swimming, there was a phrase the head coach would say loud and clear, over and over:

“If you’re early, you’re on time.”

“And if you’re late, you’re walking.”

The buses left precisely on the hour, and if you were a minute late, the doors would be closed and the bus would be heading out of the parking lots. With multi-hour trips across the states of Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, we couldn’t leave late. As a result, folks would show up 30 minutes early to get a seat on the bus. And when they missed the bus (which happened, occasionally), they could either drive the entire distance by themselves or drop out of the competition for the weekend. Rarely did people miss the bus.

Today, in the hyper-connected world of seemingly endless opportunities–particularly in San Francisco–I watch colleagues and peers say Yes to every opportunity and over-schedule each of their days. Despite the obvious lack of down-time (shown to be critically necessary for creativity, innovation and rejuvenation), I also wonder if we’re actually being more efficient–or if we just feel as though we’re being more efficient.

And it made me wonder: are we saying yes to too many things?

If you observe your own behavior, consider a couple things: why do you say yes? When do you say no? When is it difficult to know what to do? When do you say Yes when you mean No, and vice versa?


Some thoughts:

People say yes because they want to avoid conflict, appear agreeable, not let someone down, not turn away work. We say yes when we don’t have clear ideas or priorities about our time. Of course, we also say yes when we genuinely mean yes, and we want to do what we’re saying yes to.

However, a default “yes,” that’s actually a noncommittal answer (“sure, I’ll probably come”) is just delaying the decision-making from the present moment until a future moment, stacking up your mental to-do list for later. It also–and arguably more importantly–affects that people you’re communicating with by wasting their time. If you’ve ever tried to throw a party where reservations are essential, you know how irksome it can become if all ten of your guests become wishy-washy in their commitment to come. So, I wondered:

Is a “default yes” a good rule to have?

We often feel like the default is to say “yes” when we don’t have a valid reason for saying no. This isn’t always a bad habit–sometimes it’s good to say yes to things and try it out (see rules/framework for saying yes, above), but we have to remember that we can say no to anything at anytime and we don’t need a reason. A good friend of mine (entrepreneur, lawyer) takes time out of her evening to watch Law and Order with some takeout food. What does she tell her clients and colleagues and business self? “I have an appointment.” She doesn’t have to explain what it is, or why she’s not available. Sometimes “I’m not available” is sufficient enough. (I think there are gender differences and age differences in willingness and ability to say no, but I’m not going to dive into those right now. Suffice it to say, many entrepreneurs and people I meet today have a common over-commitment problem).

When saying yes, tentatively, sometimes it’s because we need more information. I’ll analyze which situations or circumstances that are making it difficult to say no. Who’s asking? What are they asking for? How are they asking (email, in person, etc). Map out the times when you say Yes effectively, when you say No effectively, and when you struggle somewhere in the middle. What’s different about the three circumstances? Is it someone you’re worried about letting down? An opportunity? Lack of clarity?

Saying yes and backing out, dropping the ball, or being unable to follow-through is a quick way to damage your credibility and reputation, as I’ve learned both vicariously and through direct experience. (It’s much better to under-promise and over-deliver than over-promise and under-deliver.)

If a clearly communicated “No” is the antithesis to a wishy-washy “Yes,” the question is then:


Some people are great at saying No. Personally, I’m not good at saying No. It’s hard. It takes practice. It’s difficult, It’s uncomfortable.

Yet two-year olds master the art of saying No all the time–so why are we socially conditioned to do otherwise in later years?

Saying No makes your yes answers stronger. People know then, when you say yes, that you mean it.

Making decisions is about having a larger priority plan, or framework. We often say yes to things in the moment when we don’t know exactly what or where we’re trying to go. That’s okay. It’s an exploration. For me, I have a few good frameworks for projects (particularly low-paying or “free” work), that help me decide whether or not to say yes to the work. In general, the project at hand has to do something for me in return, such as:

Establish really great networks or help advance key relationships I’m pursuing;

Teach me something i wouldn’t have otherwise learned on another project;

Give me an opportunity to do really great work on a type of project i haven’t yet worked on (expand portfolio and skillsets);

And in the same vein, I have to have a strong rubric for saying No when red flags come up, such as:

Will I have enough time to make this great? If not, and the work will be mediocre, I need to say No, regardless of whether the project is great. Bad work is a bad project.

Will this hurt or affect other projects or relationships that are currently in progress? If so, I need to say No.

Will I have enough time to restore my soul and sanity in between projects?

Will I have to sacrifice other things that are important to me, such as exploration, physical activity, my family? Am I willing to make that sacrifice? If not, I need to say No.


Decisions often involve opportunity cost: figuring out what you’re willing to sacrifice or lose in exchange for the thing you’re adding. We can’t always say Yes to everything and expect things to say the same.
Experience helps. It’s a lot easier for me to say No to something after I’ve been through the horrors of 80-hour workweeks and deadlines for a project I’m not fully invested in. Next time it’s easy for me to say “no, thank you!” sometimes you just have to learn your way through it to find out what’s important to you.

I often say Yes when I fail to account for “re-energy” time. In mapping my days and time, I need to make sure I take re-charge time to let my brain settle, my body recharge. If I don’t, I can’t do good work. It’s not the reverse. I have to take care of my soul, mind and body before I can actually do the good, creative work. I have a couple of rules that help me. “No Thursdays,” are my little way of reminding myself that Thursday night is my time to curl up on the couch, watch a tv show, NOT WORK, and not hang out with friends. I pretty much say no to almost every Thursday event, and it’s a wonderful exercise and practice in saying No for no reason.


Saying No–or Yes–or any other behavior takes practice. Here are a few statements that you can rehearse saying and have prepared in advance. I love watching others/observing when they say No to me, and how they do it well. Ever had someone say to you, “Wish I could, but we’re booked solid for the next three months” – and you think, “Darn, okay.” but it’s not a problem? Here are a few that work:

“My calendar is full at the moment and I don’t have availability for any more projects.”

“You’re right, I’ve done lots of projects like that in the past, but I’m moving our company/career in a new direction, and we’re focusing on a different type of project. I can recommend a few people to you if you’d like.”

“Sounds fun. I’m not available then, unfortunately.”

Folks really appreciate directness and honesty, and it’s actually helpful to them the more honest you are. Saying No can be effective—and make you more desirable by nature of demand.


Does the convenience of coordination tools (email, calendar, phone, messaging) make us more efficient? It depends entirely on the application of those tools, or more specifically, the human at the end of the tool. The convenience of technology can make spontaneous meetings easy, but conversely can allow us to be lazy about setting times and boundaries. I’m not convinced that all of this scheduling and rescheduling is necessarily helpful for any of us.

Rather, it’s a form of procrastination. Not making a decision (saying No or Yes because you haven’t decided yet) is something people do when they don’t know what they want, or they don’t accurately project how much time things / projects / meetings will actually take. It’s also a sign of insecurity and lack of priorities (don’t want to say No to this because what if I want to do it later?!), and it’s a sign of laziness (sure I’ll just say Yes to everything because then I’ll figure it out later). It’s a way for people not to have to do the hard decision making and thinking in advance.


There’s a phrase I love: “You’re either training them, or you’re being trained.” In all of our behaviors and interactions, we’re either being influenced by someone else or we’re shaping expectations of others’ behavior (or rather, in a more nuanced way, both are happening).

We can do a lot in terms of influencing other people by setting clear boundaires about our expectations and how important our time is to us. We have a lot of control over how we tell other people what, exactly, we expect of them.

For example, pre-meeting:

“Yes, I can do 9AM, but I’ll need you to be absolutely punctual. I have another 10AM meeting and I won’t be able to reschedule for another week if we miss this.”

Reinvigorate a sense of urgency. Show them that your time is limited. If you’re flexible about continually re-scheduling, then you’re sending a signal that your time can be constantly re-configured.

By stating our expectations of other people’s behavior, we let them know how they can please us. Most people want to please other people. We need to tell them how. This is true in all relationships, from love to friends to work. Not many people are intentionally trying to displease other people.

This is just like training dogs. (If you haven’t had a dog, get one.) They want nothing more than to love you and be loved in return. The best thing you can do for them is train them, well, in your expectations and how you show them your love. Poorly trained dogs are a sign of poor or lazy owners who haven’t laid out expectations and built a framework for working with their dogs–not bad dogs.

This means we are responsible for giving feedback. It doesn’t have to be irked or pained, nothing emotional, just facts. The next time we interact with someone, for example, can look like this:

“I know both of our schedules are quite busy, so let’s find a time that works. The last time we met, we weren’t able to coordinate, and that actually messed up several of my plans with other clients later that day. Can we figure out a better way to schedule a time that works for both of us?”

(This is a gentle reminder but clearly states that you had consequences from their behavior).

But better than holding grudges or trying to map a memory maze of past behavior is to tell people directly after the fact, clearly, what you didn’t like so that they can improve: This is basic Pavlovian/Skinnerian behavior conditioning, where a behavior is directly linked to feedback.

“Thanks for meeting with me today, it was great to see you. I’m surprised we started so late–if the time isn’t convenient for you, would you please let me know a better time? It’s really important to me and my business that we sync our schedules well so that I can make all of my appointments.”

The converse is true–reward good behavior:

“I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know how much I appreciated your punctuality. In a world that’s constantly in motion, working with people who are so respectful of time and appointments is really a stand-out quality. Thank you.”

The best, of course, is to lay out clear expectations for someone’s behavior in advance.

“I run a tight ship and start all of my meetings on time. I’d very much appreciate it if you would be there promptly so I can attend to everything I need to get to today.”


This post is a work in progress, looking at several questions:

Is our communication scheduling making us more efficient, or just lazier?

When and why do you say Yes to things?

When and how do you say No to things?

Do you give feedback to other people whose behavior negatively affects you?

What do you think?


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