I once worked for someone who offered me the opportunity to work on a new project nearly every day. These projects were not the quick ones, where you spend 15 minutes and crank out a solution. They were crap work. And there were strings: my boss wanted to be informed about everything, and there was no way I’d get credit for anything.
I remember my response: “That sounds amazing, but it’s not for me. I’m busy enough.”
Saying no to your boss, especially as often as I did, was thought to be risky to your career. I was the new kid, which is why I was getting all of these shit jobs thrown at me.
The diversity of skill sets needed to accomplish them would have made me look bad (perhaps the subtle point of this initiation). Furthermore, my already heavy workload would have gotten heavier with projects that didn’t move me forward. This was my first introduction to busywork.
My well-intentioned colleagues were surprised. “You’re not going to get anywhere with that attitude,” they’d pull me aside to tell me. The problem was that I wasn’t going to get anywhere by saying yes to a lot of jobs that consumed a lot of time, were not the reason I was hired, and left me no time to develop the craft of programming computers, which is what I wanted to do.
I had turned down a job offer for three times what I was being paid at this job because I wanted to work with the best people in the world on a very particular skill — a skill I couldn’t get anywhere but at an intelligence agency. Anything that got in the way of honing that craft was the enemy.
Over my first seven years, I’d barely leave my desk, working 12- to 16-hour days for six days a week. Working that hard with incredible people was amazing and motivating. I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time.
“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
— Warren Buffett
Certainly, offers of work are good problems to have. A lot of people struggle to find work, and here I was, a few weeks out of university, saying no to my boss. But saying yes to everything is a quick road to mediocrity. I took a two-thirds pay cut to work for the government so I could work with incredibly smart people on a very narrow skill (think cyber). I was willing to go all in. So no, I wasn’t going say yes to things that didn’t help me hone the craft I’d given up so much to work on.
“Instead of asking how many tasks you can tackle given your working hours,” writes Morten Hansen in Great at Work, “ask how many you can ditch given what you must do to excel.” I did what I needed to do to keep my job. As John Stuart Mill said, “as few as you can, as many as you must.”
Doing more isn’t always moving you ahead. To see why, let’s go back to first-year physics.
The Difference Between Speed and Velocity
Velocity and speed are different things. Speed is the distance traveled over time. I can run around in circles with a lot of speed and cover several miles that way, but I’m not getting anywhere. Velocity measures displacement. It’s direction-aware.
Think of it this way: I want to get from New York to L.A. Speed is flying circles around Manhattan, and velocity is hopping on a direct flight from JFK to LAX.
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.”
— Steve Jobs
When you’re at work, you need to know what you need to do to keep your job. You need to know the table stakes. Then you need to distinguish between tasks that offer a lot of speed and those that offer velocity.
Here are three ways you can increase your velocity:
- To the extent possible, ruthlessly shave away the unnecessary tasks, priorities, meetings, and BS. Put all your effort into the projects that really matter.
- Don’t rely on your willpower to say no; instead, create systems that help you fend off distractions. I have two friends who were about the same weight several years ago. Around that time, one of them was diagnosed with celiac (gluten intolerance). He immediately started to lose weight after changing his diet. Upon seeing this, my other friend decided that he, too, would go on a diet to lose weight. Because they both ate out a lot, they both were frequently in situations where they would have to make healthy choices. The person with celiac developed “automatic behavior“; he had to avoid gluten if he wanted to stay healthy and pain-free. The other person, however, had to keep making positive choices and ended up falling down after a few weeks and reverting to his previous eating habits. Another example: One of my management principles was “no meeting mornings.” This rule allowed the team to work, uninterrupted, on the most important things. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, but the default was that each day you had a three-hour chunk of time when you were at your best to really move the needle.
- And finally, do as I did, and say “no” to your boss. The best way I found to frame this reply was actually the same technique that negotiation expert Chris Voss mentioned in a recent podcast episode: simply ask, “how am I supposed to do that?” given all the other stuff on your plate. Explain that saying no means that you’re going to be better at the tasks that are most important to your job, and tie those tasks to your boss’s performance.