Ruthless Focus and the Art of Saying No

Goal-setting isn’t about adding more work. It’s about ruthlessly saying no to everything else. Productivity isn’t defined by how much work you do, but the amount of work you ignore.

I’m a big fan of the 30-Day Trial system for changing habits. I’ve used it to rewire my health, work and lifestyle. One of the most important factors for success with the system, I’ve found, is only conducting one trial at a time.

The system works by picking one habit, you’ll focus on exclusively for thirty days. After that, it becomes part of your life and is easier to continue. But, I’d argue the real power of the system comes from deciding which change to focus on, and ruthlessly ignoring the rest.

Your Most Productive Day

I accomplished more work in the last month towards this website, than I did in the eight months prior to it. Despite this, I felt considerably less stressed than I did during the first eight months. The reason was simple: I was able to focus. Instead of managing large academic projects, courses and extra-curricular activities, I only had to focus on this business.

The lesson is obvious: if you want to get something done, ignore everything else. But, I think it’s worth restating because many of us (including myself) fall into the trap of saying yes to everything and focusing on nothing at all.

The “Have-To” List is Pretty Short

Few people have the luxury of being able to focus on their goals full-time. If you have a job, family or other set responsibilities, you may not be able to focus ruthlessly on one pursuit. But mixed in with the list of genuine necessities are a lot of things that could be safely ignored.

What would happen if you said no to any of these things?

  • Twitter
  • Television
  • Volunteering
  • Clubs, Memberships or Associations
  • Parties
  • Magazines
  • Email
  • Blogs
  • Other Projects

I’m not saying you should eliminate these entirely. Or even reduce your usage. Just realize that there are probably a number of things you automatically say yes to out of guilt or habit. Things that could be ignored once, twice or indefinitely without major consequences.

Paying Yourself First

One of my favorite personal finance tips is to pay yourself first. The idea is that you should take any savings money immediately from your earnings and put it into a separate bank account. Because, if you wait until the end of the month to save what’s left, you’ve probably spent it all.

I think this idea applies equally to your goals. Pay yourself first because, if you pay other people first, then you won’t have enough time left for what’s truly important to you.

There are going to be a few things that must come first. If your goal is to start a microbusiness, but you still work a full-time job, not getting fired is your first priority (at least until your microbusiness can support you). Same with important family concerns.

However, between the list of absolute necessities and your goals are a lot of shoulds. I don’t suggest that you stop taking out the garbage, eliminate television and stop seeing your friends. But just that you should do these shoulds only after you’ve paid yourself.

Avoid Being Overcommitted

The easiest way to maintain a ruthless focus is to say no to major commitments other people ask of you that aren’t in line with your goals. I had to do this recently when I was asked to be in the leadership committee for my Toastmasters club. I had been in a leadership role previously, and without my help, the club would not be able to continue. Saying no was difficult, but necessary.

But, many times this isn’t the case. You’ve overcommitted yourself and only realize afterwards that you don’t have enough time to pay yourself. I’ve done this in the past, and I don’t believe in backing out of a commitment.

If the commitment is unimportant to the other people involved, resign from it. Let them know that you’re sorry, but you didn’t envision it would be this much work. If your commitment is more than 9-12 months, I’d make a similar apology and resignation. It may not be great for your reputation, but donating that much time to a goal that isn’t your own only hinders their efforts to find someone who can really perform.

For shorter commitments, I try to see them through. I was involved in a large group project that made it difficult to pay myself first. But, because my role was crucial to the other members, and the commitment was only a few more months, I saw it to the end.

However, even if you are overcommitted, you can still take steps forward. I made sure I didn’t commit to anything new being asked of me. This way, when my old commitments expired, I would be able to focus ruthlessly on my goals once more.

Saying No is an Unselfish Act

If you don’t put your goals first, nobody else will. This may sound selfish, but it isn’t. If your goals are aligned with helping yourself and helping other people, the most altruistic thing you can do is to put your goals first. If you’re rich, healthy or organized, you’ll be in a much better position to help people.

  • Stefan |

    Interesting article.
    But it does make sense, how can you set up a successful blog if it’s ruining your personal life. How can you become a top athlete, when you are overtraining yourself.

    Nice insights Scott!

  • AL

    “Saying No is an Unselfish Act”

    You might have yourself convinced of this in some situations you’re put in, but other people won’t be as happy about you saying no. I guess that’s why a mere and inexplicable “No” will definitely make you seem selfish unless you explain the reason behind your decision.

  • Sina

    good article, but say “not” at a something what you like, it is dificult. I think you have to a big motivation.
    I try to stop to smoke but i don’t arrive… could you help me?

  • Scott Young


    I didn’t say it was always a *popular* decision, but that often, in the long-term doing what fits your long-term goals is also best for society. Sure there are occasions of conflict of interest, but I’d say those are in the minority for most people.

    For example, if I put my health first, that will give me more energy so I can live longer to see my eventual kids grow up, have more energy to contribute to society through work, etc.


  • Jack

    A plain, unvarnished “No” will seem selfish and inconsiderate to those leeches who would drain your time and energy, but explanations will only drain you. Unfortunately, the leeches merely see an explanation as an objection for them to overcome. They will then give you a reason why your explanation is invalid, and pressure you to commit (or honor your commitment). This pressures you into providing another reason for your decision. And the cycle repeats until you run out of reasons and cave in (usually). A plain “No” is much harder to refute, and should therefore be your first line of defense.

  • JDo

    Good piece. I need to get my life back in order and this has given me some useful tips. Thanks!

  • Baker

    Nice post here. I’m pleased to see the list of items that if people could get rid of what would happen. I have made it a priority to delete most of those items that waste a lot of time, that would come to me as a habit…As a result of eliminating those activities, my production has soared.

  • Pendix

    The paradox of choice…the more things we say yes to, the less time we have for them. Good read, thanks again Scott!

  • shreevidya

    really a nice article on saying no.

  • Niro

    Hey Scott,

    A great post. The power of focus is so key to our success and happiness, yet life will continue to challenge us. Life happens – but by working out what our “musts” are vs our “shoulds”, we can go a long way towards hitting our targets.

    I love this line too:
    Saying No is an Unselfish Act – If you don’t put your goals first, nobody else will.

    So true – thanks for sharing Scott.

    Cheers, Niro

  • Stop Procrastinating

    I do love your post! I can relate to this blog very much!
    I thought saying NO to someone means you are being selfish until I’ve realized that sometimes you should say NO or refuse to do the task. People tend to give you task or projects even it is not actually you specialty or you cannot do it in time or even you don’t how to do that particular task. Sometimes, we should know how to say NO or refuse if you cannot do your 100% effectively and efficiently. I am doing right it now in my job and I can share to you that my stress and pressure are gone because I learned to say NO to my officemates. I hope someone can read this and share something about their 1st experience is saying NO to someone!

  • Alex |

    Great post, Scott.

    Saying “no” is something many people fail to learn, and is also one of the things that chews up your day until there is only a morsel or two left for yourself left over at the end. Mastering this relatively simple concept can open up heaps of time and opportunity.

    Alex Work

  • Lou

    Yeah, this past month I’ve learned to say no in ways I’ve been trying to for basically all my life. Still have more to work on. Saying no is key to self-discipline and, as you say, concentration. Currently I’m saying no to being negative, no to unhealthy/excess foods. Now, that said, don’t be mean to people who are trying to lose weight just because you’ve never been there. Focusing on little details may be a distraction, but for people who are already distracted, it’s better than nothing and can eventually escalate to focusing on what’s most important. This has happened in my case. I started out focusing on eating healthier foods, but would often eat too much of them… now I’ve learned to say no to excessive eating, but I would not have been in the right mindset when I was if I had not already been allowing myself to think closely about what I eat.

  • Allan Ngo

    I find this article more meaningful especially now that I am working full-time six days a week at out family business while studying Mandarin Chinese on the side.

    It’s what prompted me to take the 30 day challenge to wake-up early and do the most necessary stuff first. With the little free time I have, things often come-up at nights and during my 1-day weekend that what could normally done in a couple of hours tends to be delayed a couple of weeks.

    Indeed, pay yourself first and make it automatic. The result will be chunks of productivity that will propel you towards your goals.

    Thanks for this Scott.

  • francina

    Thanx Scott

    This is what I’ve been trying to do for this year. And somehow people are convinced that one should do everything all at once.

    30day challenge. Is on.

  • Sexy Beast

    I am an Yes man . A beautiful man that says yes to everything . Why ? Simple !! Life is too short to say no . You have to taste everything at least once to make it worth while . I went to this gay club a couple of days ago .. it was my first time stepping in such a club . And I was hooked . Yes . But my rule says … only once . Si I had to say no the next time !!

  • Siya Zulu


    I absolutely love your pattern of thinking. I recently read a book on Neuro-linguistics Programming and all the ideas you share are a reinforcement of what I have read so far. I see you also have books that we can buy to expand on what you blog about, I will strongly consider buying them although if I may be honest I am at a point where I have decided not to read anything unless it is aligned with my new Philosophy that I call – Operation Simple – Do it/read it only if it has great reward for your life and feeds into current strategy. This is because in the past I have read a lot of things I didn’t or couldn’t use.

    Thanks a Million Chap,

  • Rosey

    A relative of mine developed the art of saying no at a very young age.
    I have been designated caregiver to elderly parent. This relative paid no attention to my kids when they were growing up, and she has no children. She moved far enough away to be unavailable for any kind of real support. The excuse for not coming to spend time with her elderly relatives is, 1) must care for her pets 2)must attend to her business 3)must go on vacation. This is a lonely way to live when you feel nobody has your back.

    On the other hand, it has taken me a long time to realize that what you may hope will be a give and take relationship, so often becomes an unbalanced, doormat existence.

  • sherill

    Hi, it was a very interesting article and i will share it with my colleagues, you are perfectly right, it is not the quantity of work but the quality of work done that is in accordance with your goals. True enough that ” If you’re rich, healthy or organized, you’ll be in a much better position to help people”. Keeping this in mind will help us focus in achieving success.

  • Lynne

    Great insight! I know the feeling of having so much to do and not being able to finish anything because you cannot focus on one particular thing. What I do is make list of things to do and prioritize. Focus on one before jumping to the other.

  • shelley ihde

    Scott! I really need to be able to say no to my daughter more. I’ve. Overwhelmed myself with grandchildren to dos housekeeping help me mom all day she gets very. Upset if I say no. What to do help please