Steve Jobs’s Advice on the Only 4 Times You Should Say ‘No’ Is Brilliant

This content is recommended for 30~60 minute sessions. Note that tutors may not be familiar with the content. Make sure you consult with your tutor before using this material. 


After a quick greeting, read the following article out loud. Your tutor will go over pronunciation if necessary.

Steve Jobs, photographed in 1996. CREDIT: Getty Images

[P1] In the frantic pace of life to do more and be more, we hardly think about the importance of focus.

[P2] That’s why, for those free-spirited, creative thinkers and entrepreneurs chasing after their dreams, this prophetic quote by Steve Jobs 21 years ago hits the nail on the head even more so today. Here’s what he said at an Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in 1997:

[P3] People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

[P4] Jobs alluded to saying no to a thousand things. You can start by saying no to these four focus-robbers:

1. Say no to cluttering your mind.
[P5] Your first order of priority is to de-clutter your mind from “stuff”–unimportant things, tasks, calendar items, appointments, meetings, social events, and other frivolous activities that you can re-prioritize later, delegate to others, or simply drop from your to-do list altogether. The less your mind is cluttered, the better your focus will be.

2. Say no to interruptions.
[P6] Technology is one of the greatest obstacles to gaining good focus. The constant distractions from notifications can take you off track. First, when you get in the office, avoid jumping into email; you may get sucked into a whirlpool of others’ needs, so do this last. Next, minimize interruptions by going airplane mode, or turning off notifications and placing your smartphone in another room nearby (better yet, how about using an app blocker like Freedom on all your devices?). So, what do you lose by not doing any of this? One study with a group of employees found that if all interruptions were eliminated, those employees would recapture three to five hours a day every day, which equals 40-60 percent of the standard workday.

3. Say no to time robbers and yes to time locking.
[P7] Time locking is the perfect way to recover stolen time from the people you work with–the time robbers–who interrupt you constantly. Avert them by simply scheduling a specified block of time on your calendar to devote strictly to an important task or activity that requires the most focus, energy, and undivided attention. That means your co-workers need to know about your intent to time lock, so that they’ll cooperate in allowing for no interruptions, other than real emergencies.

4. Say no to your own unbelief.
[P8] Sometimes the whole business of having one true focus that will leave a legacy really comes down to a “mindset” of believing in yourself. For those Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs), you will need to stay positive about the journey ahead and look at the progress you’ve already made in hindsight. Set good boundaries and treasure your time and focus by staying positive and by sharing your BHAG with a few close colleagues so they can cheer you on and help keep you on target.



Read the word/expression and definition out loud. Your tutor will go over anything you do not understand. Practice creating a sentence or two to make sure you know how to use the word/expression properly.

Vocabulary/ Expressions

Expression Definition
frantic (adj) having a lot of wild and hurried activity
e.g. They were making frantic preparations for the party.
allude (to) (v) to speak of or mention (something or someone) in an indirect way
e.g. She alluded to her first marriage/husband.
delegate (to) (v) to give (control, responsibility, authority, etc.) to someone : to trust someone with (a job, duty, etc.)
e.g. Those chores can be delegated to someone else.
whirlpool (n) an area of water in a river, stream, etc., that moves very fast in a circle– often used figuratively
e.g. She has experienced a whirlpool of emotions. [=a confusing mixture of emotions]
hindsight (n) the knowledge and understanding that you have about an event only after it has happened
e.g. In hindsight, it’s clear that there were alternatives.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions as a guideline to help develop an interesting conversation with your tutor. Feel free to diverge from these suggestions if anything interesting comes up.

  1. Summarize the article in your own words.
  2. What are some things that you do to improve focus in your life?
  3. Of the 4 ways to improve focus in the article, which do you agree with the most?
  4. “Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.” Do you agree or disagree? Support your argument with concrete examples. Share your thoughts with your Cambly tutor!


Go over any new expressions or vocabulary that you learned today.

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