Just say no

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

That is Warren Buffett, quoted in Farnam Street.

I’m always delighted when something I’ve been doing is vindicated by brilliant people. (Statistically speaking, of course, once in a while I’m bound to do something right.)

Saying no is something I push on my colleagues and grad students, mostly unsuccessfully. I was forced to start it after (1) saying yes to too many projects, (2) starting a blog, and (3) having two children. (Having babies, it turns out, is also an excuse that people accept without question. Now that the youngest is 16 months, however, I will need to start coming up with new socially acceptable reasons for refusal.)

Now here’s the hard part: This rule doesn’t just mean turning down the good-but-not-great opportunities. It means saying no to terrific opportunities as well.

For instance, I stopped starting new field projects three years ago. No exceptions. I extended existing ones, but that’s it. In six weeks I won’t have a single survey or field experiment running anywhere in the world. Sweet bliss! It won’t last long, but I will enjoy it while it does.

Why? It keeps me sane. It also means I can get my current projects out in reasonable time. And it gives me space to think and to read and ponder big new projects. It is simply amazing how too many projects (especially field experiments and surveys) crowded out my ability to think.

Saying no is hardest for new scholars and professionals. For the first time, opportunities will start crossing your desk. They will do so with increasingly speed and quality. The trick is not to say yes to the first ones out of the sheer joy, novelty, and opportunity. It will crowd out better options just a few months down the road.

The only thing that gives me pause, however, is that the two projects that midway through I wished I’d said no to, turned out to be two of my best published papers. It’s hard to pick winners. So my addendum to Warren Buffett is this: “Very successful people might also know better what to say no to, but most of the time they are just very lucky.” So still say no, live a little less frantically, and your work will probably be better as a result.