Marketing Musings

How to Say No to Work, Even in Hard Times

How to Say No to Work, Even in Hard Times

Times are tough, financially speaking, and if you read the headlines, they’re only going to get worse.

I have two important words for us entrepreneurs and any self-employed person: Don’t panic. I say this for a few reasons:

  • If you let your hardwired fight-flight-freeze-please defense mechanism hijack your common sense, you’ll be making decisions based on outdated, habituated responses that probably come from a time when you didn’t have the experience or expertise you have today.
  • Assuming the worst and ignoring the best is how we jump to conclusions. And there are all kinds of cognitive biases built-in, including confirmation bias and fundamental attribution error.
  • There are also many more reasons we naturally make bad decisions, including casual assumption, inference-observation confusion, fortune-telling, mind-reading, overgeneralization, and extreme extrapolation. You get what those things are from their names — it just means you don’t have all of the facts, and you’re basing action on how things appear, not what’s really going on.

Does that mean everything is going to be OK? Not necessarily, but definitely not if you make the common mistakes of not knowing your worth and, from there, allowing desperation to be your guidance system.

I say this from experience — and not something that happened in the distant past. Even to this day, I have to be conscious of how my instinct of wanting to help people can lead me to devalue my time, attention, connections, and effort. These assets are something we all hold — they’re valuable and always in demand.

Knowing that, please answer the following question honestly: Can you say “no” to the business “opportunities” that ultimately don’t serve you, regardless of external circumstances?

We’d all like to say yes to that question, but if you’re like me, the answer tends to be “no.” So, let’s get better at saying “no” together by exploring some approaches that have worked for me.

A Dead Giveaway

If you’re like me, the thing you’re most guilty of is giving away too much of your time for free. And look, I get it — there are many good reasons to want to give away your time, insight, and headspace for free. Here are a few typical rationalizations:

  • I like the person who pitched me, and we had a fun convo.
  • I’m generous by nature and love being of service.
  • The project is interesting, and I can see myself being a part of it.
  • I admire and respect the people involved with the project.
  • The topic is right in my wheelhouse — it’s fun and exciting.
  • A colleague or friend made the connection, and I don’t want to disappoint them.
  • I’d like to help the person who reached out because they might not have access to the same level of opportunities that I’ve been afforded.
  • The project is with an old client or colleague, and getting the old gang back together would be fun.

Sound familiar? It is to me — I cycle through these thoughts and rationalizations all the time. And frankly, it knocks me off my game. Let me give you a recent example:

A friend and colleague of mine referred a friend of his to me recently who had an interesting NFT art project. He knew I’m passionate about art and hands-on in the NFT space, so this would be right up my alley. Plus, the project involves a high-profile artist, so it’s sexy — and, at least at first glance, seemed like it would have a huge upside with a built-in audience.

The first call lasted around an hour, and by the end, an essential piece of information was shared: it would be an equity-only deal should I participate. Right there, I should have politely declined, as my business (like all businesses!) relies on cash flow, not future stakes. Instead, for many of the above reasons, I agreed to think about it, then hop on a second call.

In between, I reached out to my head of technology, who I know is a big fan of the artist involved. I ended up having multiple meetings with him, trying to find an angle to have this make sense.

Why was I pushing so hard, you might ask? I asked myself that same question and came back to a few of the above reasons: I was genuinely interested in working with the people involved in the project, dug the concept, and could see a fascinating paradigm emerging from this use case.

The second call was scheduled, and I could feel in my gut that it wasn’t the right move. This time, I listened. I had a sense that I was forging ahead with a non-starter, so I decided it was time to quantify the project.

No by the Numbers

There are many reasons why we humans have a hard time saying “no.” We’re afraid of conflict, hate to disappoint or hurt someone’s feelings, and love to be liked (or loved). So, it helps us to have good reasons to pass on opportunities when we know they’re not right for us.

Having already invested five or six hours in a project I knew was not for me, I took another hour to really give it a good look. First, I took a look at the size of the fan base because you need a pretty active and engaged audience to win in the world of NFTs.

The answer was, in the grand scheme of things, pretty small. Their website wasn’t optimized properly, so their search results weren’t huge.

Further, a closer look at their demographics revealed a much older profile than the current NFT audience, which skews young. Benchmarking against the traffic on the core site and searches against it, I saw an under-indexing statistical set.

This is a desktop screenshot of website analytics from SEM Rush for a NFT project that the author was evaluating to provide business recommendations. You see in the screenshot metrics like an Authority Score, Organic Search Traffic, Backlinks and different types of traffic on a line graph.
Image by Author - Screenshot of Website Analytics

Beyond that, their one social channel, Instagram, surprisingly wasn’t all that active — more of a micro-influencer scale of just over 11K and not much engagement. To win in the crypto and NFT space, you have to have an engaged community and audience.

Now for some hard numbers: I figured that if 5% of their IG audience converted (which would be high) and bought their NFTs at a fair market price of .1 ETH (at the time, around 110 USD), that would yield approximately $55,000. Take out hard costs and taxes, and the actual profit would be approximately $17,000– most of which should go to the artist and the producer. That might leave me maybe $3,500 (tops, probably less) if I took around 20% of the profits — depending on the value of ETH at that point, too. Certainly, there would be more potential upside if resales were built into the smart contract, but that was speculative. Plus, with such low initial demand, repeat sales seemed unlikely.

Line graph showing the US dollar value of the cryptocurrency Ethereum depicting how the value has been volatile lately and it's overall on the decline.
Image by Author - Screenshot from CoinDesk

That would be for months of work, pulling in some of my connections, and other costs — notably opportunity costs.

When it’s framed in that context, “no” seems simple, doesn’t it?

One side note: “No” gets a bad rap because toddlers use that word when they throw a temper tantrum. Declining offers shouldn’t be thought of in the same way — I see it more as an opportunity to be generous. So, for example, in the email I sent passing on the project, I included a handful of recommendations of what they can do now to build the audience and bolster their digital presence so that when “Crypto Winter” passes, they will be ready to rock.

Remember, “no” is a door-opener. It can give you space for the things you want to say yes to, or it can be for the current situation — not forever. Being polite, helpful, and kind is money in the bank.

A Rock and a Hard Place

We all tend to devalue ourselves here and there. And I know when I do, I get mad at myself for wasting time. Because time is the most important commodity, and the focus should be on using it wisely.

So, for example, the half-dozen hours I spent trying to rationalize a project could have been spent in much more valuable ways — and I mean that not just monetarily speaking. In our post-pandemic world, we all recognize how precious quality of life is. So, I could’ve spent that time catching up on work or life in general by reading, meditating, or spending quality time with my family. The same goes for when you take on business solely to make money when you hate what you’re doing in your heart. This drains your reserves and limits your upside.

Being intentional with your time is the secret to saying “no.” For me, this means having a physical reminder that I look at every single day:

Picture taken by phone of pink Himalayan salt rocks in a clear glass mason jar on top of a desk.
Picture taken by Author

That’s a jar of Himalayan salt given to me by my COO to improve my workspace that I keep on my desk. And it does, but not for the reasons that sound good but are unproven (air purification, mood elevation).

Whenever I look at the jar, I think about the classic Stephen R. Covey “Big Rocks” paradigm. In the video, he gives a woman a bucket full of sand representing the small stuff that tends to fill up our lives — those inconsequential things we mindlessly say yes to. And then he asks a woman to fit in all the big rocks — work, business development priorities, relationships/family, service/community, time for yourself, vacation, and urgent matters — into the bucket.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t work when it’s already filled with the little things.

The only way everything fits is to put the big rocks in first and then fill in the gaps with the sand. Miraculously, it all works, but only if you prioritize. So, what are your big rocks? And are you sacrificing their space in your limited bucket by allowing all the little things to pile up?

The Courage to Be Disliked

It’s true that most of us don’t like to be turned down. And it’s equally true that most of us hate disappointing others. From the example I shared in this article, you can tell I’m a people-pleaser. This is why I recently picked up a book called The Courage to Be Disliked. The two-second synopsis is that according to the theories of 19th-century psychologist Alfred Adler, most of our problems stem from interpersonal relationships. This makes sense, but living like a hermit isn’t an option for most of us.

So, what’s one more way to stop yessing yourself to death and get better at saying “no”?

You don’t even have to read the book to get the answer — it’s right there in the title. It takes courage to stop trying to please all the people all the time. But it’s a worthy trade-off: as you focus on what brings you meaning, purpose, and joy, you improve yourself and the world around you. Just allow yourself to be totally honest because deep down, you know what you can tolerate and when “no” is the simplest and best answer.

I’m curious — how and when do you say “no” in business? Hit me up in the comments or on Twitter — DMs are open.