The Five Second No

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When someone asks you for a small favor, how often do you say yes, without thinking twice. How often do you refuse? And how often have you regretted saying no?

When I did my own analysis, I realized I was agreeing to do favors for people far too often – little things like giving a lecture, providing an article, or doing a short interview. I frequently invested more time than I’d first imagined to produce results significantly less useful than I’d hoped for all concerned. I set out wanting to do the other person a favor, but ended up doing myself none. I still do, because I believe in Givers Gain and in reciprocity. If you do a good favor to others, they will also do the same with you.

The tit-for-tat strategy is what keeps the world economy going. We co-operate every day with dozens of people to whom we are not related, many of them on the other side of the world, and have profited remarkably from doing so.

Reciprocity has its lurking dangers. One allows oneself to be manipulable. Once the spontaneous yes has slipped out, we tend to rationalize it. We think about the solid arguments for it, and not about the time it will take to fulfill it. Ever since I realizes that spontaneously agreeing to things is a deep seated biological reflex, I have been using Charlie Munger’s five second no as a counter tactic. If you say ‘No’ ninety percent of the time, you’re not missing much in the world. If now I am asked for a favor, I mull over it for exactly five seconds before making up my mind – and the answer is mostly No. I’d prefer to systematically turn down most requests and risk unpopularity than the other way around. Why not give it a try? So give the five second no a trial run and let me know.

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