I say “no” all the time. I could start keeping track of the number of times I do it a day, but I’d guess it’s a minimum of 10 and occasionally over 50 times a day. When I type that, my first reaction is “no way, there’s no possible way I say no more than 50 times a day”, but when I think a little more, it definitely happens sometimes.
One of my goals is to be accessible to anyone that reaches out to me. Another goal is to minimize the amount of time I spend on things that I either (a) don’t have an investment in, (b) won’t have an investment in, or (c) don’t have an interest in. Basically, I want to “optimize my accessibility”. This ebbs and flows – when I’m in balance I’m very happy; when I’m out of balance I’m still very happy, but notice that I’m out of balance.
One of the keys to this is to “say no in less than 60 seconds.” Given that my email address is easily discernable, I get a lot of random inbound “we are looking for money” and “do you want to have coffee” emails. These are easy to say no to, but I also get a lot of not-random “we are looking for money” (e.g. sent from someone I know) and “do you want to have coffee” (e.g. sent from someone I know or recommended by someone I know) emails. And it escalates in relevance from there (and morphs into all forms, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, meeting, run, …)
Somewhere between 1% and 10% of these fit my a/b/c criteria above. I can figure this out from the first interaction at least 50% of the time and my first email response is (hopefully a polite) version of “no” that usually consumes a total of less than 30 seconds from beginning to end. Another 25% of the time I need a little more information and request it via mail. This has the side effect of eliminating another chunk of interactions since the person on the receiving end never bothers to respond. For those that do respond, I can usually figure out from the response whether or not I want to spend more time or not; if not, I’m still probably under 60 seconds for saying “no”.
The rest usually end up in more email interactions, a phone call, or a meeting. I try to limit all first meetings to 30 minutes so I don’t waste either of our time if it’s not going to go anywhere, although I’m not always successful at this (the wasting time part).
Now, lest you think this is “overstructured”, remember my goal: minimize the amount of time I spend on things I don’t care about which allows me to maximize the amount of time I spend on things I care about, while still being very accessible. While I don’t always get this right, I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the past 20 years.