Beware Of Distant Elephants Before You Say Yes

Oct 14, 2016 1 Min Read


Do you have trouble saying no? Do you ever look at your ridiculous day calendar and wonder, “Why in the world did I agree to all this?”

The more responsibilities we gain in life, the shorter the days,  months and years get. There simply isn’t enough time to get everything done anymore.

And yet, the requests on our time continue. There’s no possible way we can say yes to everything; yet, there are still times when we find it so hard to turn someone down.

There are many reasons for that, including:

• We’re afraid to make people mad.
• We’re afraid to hurt someone’s feelings.
• We want to be liked.
• We don’t want to be rude; we were raised to be polite.
• We underestimate how much time it will really take.
• We aren’t clear on our own priorities.
• We feel good by being helpful.
• We like earning future return favours.

Indeed, we are raised and socialised to want to help others in need. We value helping others.
But before you say yes, remember: The future you will be just as busy as the present you. If not more.

Uncontrolled “yes” responses to requests for time will quickly block out all the other things we value – including the very things that have gotten us this far in the first place.

Beware of distant elephants

They say that in the distance, even giant elephants at first look small. Unfortunately, many small things turn into big things when they actually arrive.

Here’s a recent experience to illustrate.

A young woman, an undergraduate at a local college, e-mailed me out of the blue one day and told me she was a fan of my leadership work.

She said her school had a speaker series each year, and she asked if it was okay for her to suggest me.
Sure, I said. That was my first yes.

A month later, an administrator from the college e-mailed to follow up with a specific date for me to come speak and to let me know there would be no fee.

Would I consider it? My typical speaking fee runs into the tens of thousands, but I love speaking to students and always try to schedule at least one pro bono speech each month to a non-profit group.

I looked up the date on my calendar – three months down the road – and that date was free. In fact, my whole week was unscheduled.

Wow, the future was going to really be a lot less busy than the present! I was looking forward to it. I accepted the invitation. That was my second yes.

As the date got closer, another student asked me if she could interview me for the college radio station; I would just need to arrive a couple of hours earlier.

Then a professor asked if I wouldn’t mind speaking to his economics class about business and ethics, just a little earlier in the day. Yes and yes.

As time ticked away and the pro bono event at the college got closer and closer, more and more things came up. My daughter’s school play got scheduled for the same day; I would have to miss it.

I was asked to do a corporate keynote event on the same day – for my full fee; I had to turn it down. A TV news programme in Australia wanted to do a live interview with me on the same day via satellite, but I was already booked.

It was a bummer missing out on all those other things (especially my kid’s play), but I don’t regret my original decision or the string of yeses that followed. Still, I share this story as an example of how we mistakenly think we’ll be less busy in the future than we are in the present.


When yes means no

It’s easy to accept a lunch date when you look at your calendar three weeks from now and see that you have no meetings or other lunch plans that day. You have to realise: Whatever obligations and projects and tasks you have now, you’ll also have in a month, six months, or a year.

Unless you make a radical change in your life, your children will continue to get sick, play sports, and require parent-teacher conferences; your boss will still be giving you projects; your car will still need oil changes and inspections; your friends will still be throwing parties.

It’s not that you should say no to everything, but you have to identify what your priorities are, and remember that just because your calendar is empty now, doesn’t mean it will be when the time comes. And also remember, even simple projects seem to grow in size. Even distant elephants look small from far away.

Kevin is the New York Times best-selling author, keynote speaker, and leadership expert. He is the founder of The Kruse Group. To engage with him, e-mail us at For more Consulting Corner articles, click here.
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