Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are not only multibillionaire entrepreneurs, they're longtime friends. On more than one occassion they've each expressed appreciation for what they've learned from each other.

For example, Gates once shared an invaluable insight he learned from Buffett, which shaped his perspective for years to come.

Buffett told him:

"There will always be an unending supply of opportunities, things to do, causes you care about, and on and on. Knowing when and how to say no to projects, social invitations, and other requests or your time frees you up to focus on objectives that matter."

Words of wisdom.

What Buffett knew (and Gates learned) is that no matter how much money a person makes, they are still limited by time. Everyone has the same amount of hours in a day. The same days in a week. The same weeks in a year.

Knowing when and how to say no is a powerful weapon, because it helps you to maximize your time, and focus on the things that matter most to you.

Steve Jobs said the same thing

Interestingly, legendary Apple cofounder Steve Jobs used to preach the same message.

Jobs famously resurrected Apple from near death by whittling down its product line and focusing on making a few great products, and making them well. That type of thinking gave birth to major innovations like the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and the iMac, and the Macbook.

"Steve was the most remarkably focused person I've ever met in my life," Apple design chief Jony Ive once said in an interview for Vanity Fair. Ive says Jobs would regularly ask him: 

How many things have you said no to today?

"What focus means is saying no to something that you [think]--with every bone in your body--is a phenomenal idea," Ive explained. "And you wake up thinking about it. But you say no to it because you're focusing on something else."

Everyone needs to learn to say no. No matter what your business, you're faced with tough choices every day. 

  • Should I take that meeting? 
  • Do I really want to take on this client or project? 
  • Should I focus on this task at the expense of the other?

Before deciding, you have to think about what you want to accomplish. Not just today but over the next weeks, months, and years. Allow that focused thinking to guide your decision making.

How to say no

The problem with saying no is we often feel guilty. We feel pressure to say yes, to please the other person or because we're afraid to harm the relationship.

So, we rationalize. "I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. They won't understand. I'll find a way to get it all done."

No, you won't.

So, once you've decided you need to say no, how can you follow through?

Be firm, yet polite. You could tell the person what you're focused on right now, and that as much as you'd like to help, you're schedule won't allow it. You can assure them that if you did try to take this on, you'd be doing both of you a disservice--as splitting your attention would result in inferior results.

Of course, you could always direct the person to a resource they might find helpful. If you're genuine, the other person should appreciate your effort to point them in the right direction.

At times, though, people will keep coming back. Don't cave in.

Just say no.

And mean it.

"You don't have to be soulless about it," advises Dr. Ellen Hendriksen on her podcastThe Savvy Psychologist.  "A little compassion goes a long way. But it's far too easy for 'no' to transform into 'maybe.' And 'maybe's' cousins 'well, ok, just this time' and 'fine, go ahead' are always close behind."

Once you've made your decision, don't keep thinking about it. Simply move on.

Put it into practice

Learning to say no requires emotional intelligence--the ability to make emotions work for you, instead of against you. It's far too easy to make a permanent decision based on a temporary emotion.

But do that too often, and you'll live a life full of regret.

So, instead of trying to do it all, focus on doing what matters most--and do it right.

Because every time you say yes to something you don't really want, you're saying no to the things you do.