Saying no is quite possibly one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to learn.

Why? Most new business owners spend a lot of time chasing opportunities. So when one is presented to us, it’s hard to turn down. We’re also naturally optimistic—we’re the type who’re willing to try something new just to see how it goes. And especially in the early days, when we’re worried about getting any clients at all, we feel practically obligated to take any opportunity that comes along—it just might help build the business, and we’ll do anything to make that happen.

The inclination to say yes to everything is understandable—but that doesn’t make it right, or even productive. If you’re an entrepreneur—or an aspiring one—here’s why “no” can be the most important word in your vocabulary.

The Risks of Saying Yes

We’ve all experienced the side-effects of saying yes too much: becoming over-committed, wasting time, and feeling burnt out. When you’re exhausted, you aren’t going to run your business at its best.

Most problematically, if you don’t say no, you seriously risk becoming unfocused. Saying yes too much can turn into a bad habit that leads to unwise decisions and wreaks havoc on your business. You’ll find yourself always reacting to the latest offer, rather than pursuing the business goals you’d originally had in mind.

And once you’ve relinquished control over your business direction, your company is liable to get hijacked by the next most powerful force, whether that’s clients, fans, investors, or even plain old dollars. If you short-change your priorities for those of others, you might sacrifice the very benefits you were seeking as an entrepreneur in the first place.

There are a tremendous number of unsatisfied entrepreneurs who built their businesses in response to the requests and suggestions of others, rather than their own ideas: By always saying yes, they ended up running businesses they didn’t necessarily like. That may seem dramatic, but take it from me: Not being able to say no is one of those problems that starts small and ends up big.

How to Say No: Change Your Mindset

Learning how to say that two-letter word isn’t easy, so you have to change the way you think about it: It’s not a negative, it’s a way to protect what you love most.

I remind myself that each coffee, favor, or phone call takes time away from the other things I want to be doing—and that time really adds up. Each difficult or underpaying client prevents me from taking on better, more rewarding work that adds value to my business. Each divergent opportunity detracts valuable resources from the projects that will really move my business forward.

And I remind myself that by saying no, I am actually saying yes—to the things that really deserve my time and attention, and to having the time for the right opportunities when they come along. By saying no, I am able to preserve the clients and parts of my business that I really enjoy. And only by saying no am I fully able to take advantage of the opportunity that entrepreneurship affords me: doing meaningful and rewarding work on my terms.

Photo courtesy of smlp.co.uk.