There was a time when Tom Hanks didn't have the fame and fortune that he does today. He's told of the time he had to figure out how to feed his family on a budget of $45 a month, and when he had to borrow money from producers for rent.

Of course, that was a long time ago. Fast-forward to today, and Hanks has become one of the most recognized movie stars in the world.

It was before this, though, when Hanks got his first taste of success and offers started streaming in, that the actor says he learned an important lesson -- one that can benefit entrepreneurs, freelancers, and other small-business owners, as their work and reputations start to grow. He was speaking about how he got to a place where he could make the movies he really wanted to make. To do that, says Hanks, he needed to learn to say a very difficult word to people.

That word was no.

"The odd lesson for that is I figured out that's how you end up making the favorable work you do," said Hanks in an interview. "Saying yes, then you just work. But saying no means you made the choice of the type of story you wanted to tell and the type of character you want to play." 

There's a lot of wisdom in these words. When it comes to my own work, they've helped teach me to set my own priorities and create a business that helps me achieve my own personal goals. 

I like to call this lesson the Tom Hanks rule.

(If you find value in the Tom Hanks rule, you might be interested in my full emotional intelligence course -- which includes 20 more rules that help you develop your emotional intelligence. Check out the full course here.)

Getting more out of work and life means learning to say no

The Tom Hanks rule helps you to develop self-management, a key facet of emotional intelligence. It states simply:

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

It's important to remember this, because it's easy to get caught up in the moment. You might get in the habit of saying yes to everyone's request for a favor, just because you want to be helpful. Or you might accept whatever work comes your way -- even if it prevents you from reaching your goals.

When you remember the Tom Hanks rule, you remind yourself that every decision has consequences, and that there is only a certain amount of hours in the day, days in the week, and weeks in the year. 

This is especially important to remember as your business becomes more successful. As an owner, you might chafe at the idea of turning down sure work. But part of the beauty of running a successful business is that you can get more picky with how you choose to spend your time. 

You don't have to work with every client; you can focus on the clients you enjoy working with.

You don't have to spend time on tasks you hate; you can hire others to care for these, and focus on aspects of the business that leverage your strengths.

You don't have to work 60- or 70-hour weeks if you don't want to; you can build your work schedule around other things that are just as important to you, if not more so.

Of course, you shouldn't say no to everything. Part of relationship building, and likely what helped you build a successful business in the first place, is helping when you can.

But every day you will be faced with tough choices about how you're going to spend your time and energy. When you do, remember the Tom Hanks rule: Keep your emotions in check, and just say no to the things that aren't important to you, so you have more time for the things that are.