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ATD Blog

The Power of No


Wed Dec 14 2016

The Power of No

“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” 

Warren Buffett 


Most of us are not in Warren Buffett’s position, so we can’t say no to everything. However, during a recent webcast, participants were asked about their biggest time management challenge. The top category, by far, was prioritizing projects and tasks, followed by interruptions, distractions, and too many projects. It struck me that one of the underlying causes for many of these challenges was difficulty saying no. 

Prioritizing Projects and Tasks 

In most organizations, learning and development serves other departments as an internal consultant. All departments think that their project is the most important. They need you and they need you now. You (and your team) are a limited resource. If you try to meet every request and deadline, your work quality will decline and your stress level will go through the roof. 

How can you juggle various requests in a fair, responsive way? First, learn how to say no while still considering the needs of your customers. One approach is to have an intake form or process that assigns an initial priority for each project. Even a simple survey that asks for the number of people involved, the business impact (does it affect revenue, reduce costs, improve customer satisfaction?), and the deadline can help you assign a priority to the project. If you do this even before you fully assess the project, it will be easier to prioritize your tasks. Having a system makes it easier for you to say, “I can’t prioritize that right now, due to the high volume of requests, but why don’t we look at first quarter 2017?” If your internal clients begin to see you and your team as a scarce resource, they will start to ask you earlier for your help because they know they need to get on your calendar. 


Interruptions include people dropping by unannounced with requests and phone calls, as well as emergency meetings scheduled at the last minute. You will always have some interruptions in your day, so it’s best to plan knowing that some things are bound to come up. Jim Steffen (our webcast speaker and author of Aligned Thinking: Make Every Moment Count) recommends a “holding bin” to keep your complete to-do list out of sight, and having a list of three to four priority items that you can complete by the end of the day close at hand. Doing this helps free up the mental energy and space to stay focused on your most important items.  

Ideally, you will have blocked some time on your calendar to complete these projects and tasks. Close your door and let people know (gently) when you are working on an intensive project. If someone does drop by at a time that is disruptive, let the person know you are on deadline and arrange a time to talk later. The next time, the person will probably call ahead or send you an email. Once again, if you are a scarce resource, people will be a bit more respectful of your time. 



Interruptions are generated externally; distractions, internally. For example, while you’re working on a project, an unrelated thought or task diverts your attention. It’s easy to get sidetracked if you’re not sure which items on your to-do list are most important. This is where your intake process and daily priority list can come in handy. I’ve been using a countdown timer to break my day into smaller blocks. I schedule a focused period to work a specific project and don’t allow myself to get distracted during that time. For example, I gave myself 60 minutes to complete this blog post, and had a countdown timer going to keep me focused. When time was up, I gave myself a five- to 10-minute break before starting the next project. 

Depending on your workplace arrangement, you may not have the luxury of a door or even your own desk. In that case, you will need to find other ways to block out distractions, such as headphones, using an empty conference space for intensive projects, or working at home from time to time to complete a big project. Try keeping track of the number of times you are distracted and note what caused the distraction. You may find a pattern that will suggest a solution. For example, if you find yourself getting distracted by the Internet, there are apps that restrict your use during specific times, such as Freedom, AntiSocial, or RescueTime

Too Many Projects 

Having too many projects and not enough resources to complete them also points to problems matching supply and demand. We all underestimate the time required to accomplish various tasks. As I mentioned earlier, it’s critical for you to have an intake process and a way to estimate a project’s required resources. Gather good data during the assessment process so you can accurately estimate the time and resources that will be needed. This information will also come in handy when you ask for more staff or resources. 

Meetings and Email 

Before attending a meeting, ask yourself if it is a productive use of your time and you truly have to go. You may be able to delegate some meetings to others, find other ways to communicate, or combine two meetings into one. If your organization is “meeting happy,” perhaps you can implement more structure or better meeting management techniques. 

Rampant email is also a problem for many of us. One strategy I’ve used successfully is checking email only at certain times a day. Turn off the email notification on your computer or phone so you are not alerted to every message you receive. Instead, allocate some time each day to check email, such as five minutes at the end of each hour or 15 minutes a few times each day. Let people know that if they need you in an emergency, they should call or text you.


No matter the source of your distractions or interruptions, implementing some process changes that allow you to say no in a respectful way and focus on your true priorities will help others to be more respectful of your time too. 

Here are some more resources on managing the learning function and your time: 

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