Flexing Your “No Thanks” Muscle

“Would you like to save 10% on your purchase by signing up for a Bloomingdales’ credit card?” asked the sales person who had helped me pick out several new suits. “It will only take a few minutes.”

“Why not?” I thought to myself; the savings would amount to more than a hundred dollars.

Well, here’s why not:

An hour later, after speaking with the Bloomingdales credit department twice, we still hadn’t finished. When, finally, I was approved, they hadn’t extended enough credit for the entire purchase, so I had to split the cost between my new Bloomingdales’ card and my regular credit card, which gave me more accounting to do as well as an additional bill to pay at the end of the month. Total cost to me? At least two hours of my time and a whole lot of aggravation and stress.

When you catch yourself thinking “why not?” consider it a warning sign. “Why not?” means it’s probably not that important to you, but there’s a reward and the cost seems small so, well, why not?

But if you say “why not?” to the Bloomingdales’ card, you’ll also say “why not?” when CVS offers you a free $10 gas gift card when you purchase $30 worth of select products. And when you realize that you need to be an ExtraRewards member to get the savings, you figure, well, “I’ve gone this far, I might as well sign up for that too,” which, of course, takes more time and ushers in more offers, promotions, and distractions.

Then where do you stop? Every deal seems like a good deal. And any one of them probably won’t take that much time. But if you take one deal, you’ll probably take the others (why not?) and all together the time and attention it steals becomes a costly distraction from your one, most valuable possession — your focus.

The most important skill we possess in this world of infinite distractions is focus. Anything that distracts us — even saving a hundred dollars — is just mind clutter.

We need to clear out our mind clutter and place our attention where it matters most, which requires three steps:

1. Know your focus. This is critical and rarely done well. Knowing exactly where to place your attention is a challenge, especially given the barrage of nonstop offers, opportunities, requests, and needs that compete against each other.
2. Sustain your focus. Knowing where you want to place your attention is one thing. Actually placing and keeping it there day after day is another.
3. Protect your focus. Defending yourself from being distracted by mind clutter is a moment-by-moment discipline. You need to become a master at choosing when to say, “no thanks,” even when it seems like there’s no downside to saying, “why not?” Because there’s almost always a downside.

In my upcoming book, 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, I explore ways to know, sustain, and protect our focus as we cut through the noise to get our most important priorities accomplished.

One thing we can do is recognize that we have a limited amount of space in our minds and each time we say “why not?” to something — or even consider saying “why not?” to something — it takes up room. If we learn to automatically say, “no thanks,” to things that seem like a good deal, but don’t fit into our main areas of focus, we’ll simplify our lives and free our minds to focus.

How do we do that? By exercising our, “no thanks,” muscle in the face of temptation. No thanks, I’ll skip your rewards program. No thanks, I won’t take that savings. No thanks, I’m not going to increase my order size in order to get free shipping.

Then we can practice with the bigger things. No thanks, I’m not going to join that committee. No thanks, I won’t be able to make that dinner. No thanks, I won’t take on that project.

Of course, the reason we’re saying, “no thanks,” is so that we can say, “yes please,” to the right things. The reason I didn’t join the committee is so I can focus on my book. The reason I passed on the dinner is so I can focus on my family. The reason I didn’t take on that project is so I can focus on this other one instead.

“No thanks,” paves the road for “yes please,” and it simplifies your decisions and your life. It helps you do fewer unimportant things.

Over dinner with friends one night, we developed a No Thanks List, consisting of 27 examples when, in our opinion “no thanks” was the best response to eliminate distraction and help us maintain our focus. Feel free to add to the list.

Recently, Bloomingdales sent me an additional 15% off coupon to use with my new Bloomingdales’ credit card within a specified time frame. I was tempted. I actually thought, “Why not?”

But I know better. I threw out the coupon and called to cancel the card. When I spoke with the representative, she offered me an additional $25 coupon to keep the card. This time, I wasn’t even tempted. “No thanks,” I said, and got back to my writing.


  1. Chet Safian says:

    Bringing focus to your life is one of the most important aspects of a successful life, no matter how you define “success.” I learned that lesson many years ago when I ran my first marathon, an event which requires daily and consistent training and saying “no thanks” to many distractions. Strange as it may seem, the focus I discovered and used in preparing for the big race helped me become more successful as a parent and in my business.

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