Often we think the key to success is all the amazing things you do. But many successful people will tell you that's backwards. The real magic is in what you say no to.
Steve Jobs, for instance, believed "focusing is about saying no," and was famously ruthless about turning down even promising projects in order to retain laserlike focus on the few he was pursuing. A parade of founders and executives agree with his philosophy: What you say no to is just as important (if not more important) than what you say yes to.
Imagine it's tomorrow
Those who aspire to greatness face an important puzzle. Life offers limitless paths and possibilities. How do you spot the few invitations, suggestions, and ideas that are actually worth devoting your precious time to?
Many have offered advice on the matter, suggesting whole categories of things you should give up, or providing scripts to help you politely decline opportunities. All of that advice has value, but one of the best tips I've seen is a short but incredibly useful suggestion via the Recomendo newsletter and Wired founder Kevin Kelly. He dubs it "the immediacy filter":
One of the most useful bits of advice I ever got came from the writer Anne Herbert, who said that whenever she got an invitation to do something months away or even a week away, she asked herself whether she would accept the gig/meeting/task if it was tomorrow. The answer was often no. I use that immediacy trick all the time, and it has served me very well.
Why it works
The brilliance of this trick is rooted in a simple observation about human beings. Time distorts how we value things. At a gut level, we value five dollars today more than five dollars in a week. The same is true of five minutes. It's far easier to give away future time than it is to give away present time.
There's not much we can do to completely uproot these sorts of irrational biases, but we can think our way around them. Herbert's mental trick is a simple but super powerful way to do an end run against your wonky valuation of your future time (as well as your fear of seeming rude or ungrateful in the moment).
So, next time someone calls you about a speaking engagement, a social event, or a work opportunity that's weeks or months in the future, don't ask, "Is this an interesting or valuable opportunity?" It very well may be, but as Steve Jobs reminds us, we shouldn't chase every good opportunity that presents itself.
Instead, ask, "If this thing were happening tomorrow, would I be psyched to do it?" Unless the answer is yes, seriously consider giving the opportunity a pass.