The difference between living a life of peace and productivity versus a life of stress and resentment could lie in one simple skill: Learning how to say no.
Saying no makes the difference between a packed schedule and an open one. It makes the difference between having too many tasks and having just the right amount. It makes the difference between working crazy hours and hitting deadlines without stress.
But saying no can be tough. You might feel uncomfortable saying no because you worry about upsetting people, looking like you can’t handle your workload, or missing out on opportunities both now and in the future.
But the truth is that when you never say no, you will actually increase the likelihood of the outcomes you fear. And when you do say no — when necessary — you reduce the likelihood of dropping balls and save your sanity.
So how exactly do you say no? As a time management coach, I regularly work with coaching clients on learning to set boundaries and decline requests where needed. Here are a few of my best strategies for saying no in three critical areas: time commitments, tasks, and time frames.
To dramatically open up hours in your schedule, you’ll need to start saying no to time commitments that aren’t the best use of your day. This means diverting yourself from the path of least resistance (accepting all requests that come your way), and instead asking yourself, “Is this the right investment of my time?”
For example, let’s say you’re asked to volunteer on a committee. It’s a good initiative but not aligned with your personal passions or your professional development goals. It would mean at minimum three to five hours out of your work time each month, which add up to 36-60 hours over the course of a year. To decline gracefully say:
“Thank you so much for asking me to be part of this committee. I’m really honored, but I’ll need to respectfully decline because I’m at capacity right now. Thank you for your understanding.”
Or you’re asked to attend a meeting where your presence is not necessary. In fact, other people on your team may be a better fit. You might decline the meeting invite and say:
“I saw the meeting invite. I appreciate the notice that it’s happening. Jerry will be representing our team. I know he’ll do a great job and will report back on anything we need to know.”
Or perhaps you’re invited to go to lunch with individuals who you already see often and you have a project to work on, want to go to the gym, or simply want a break. You could say:
“Thanks so much for the invite, but I already have some other commitments.”
Saying no to time commitments that don’t align with your priorities or needs can lead to a small amount of initial discomfort but save you hours of time in the end.
Most people have far more tasks on their to-do lists than they could possibly get done in a given day. This is especially true for individuals who try to help everyone before getting their own work done. To break out of this cycle, it’s time to start saying no.
For instance, when someone asks you to do something that isn’t your job, you have every right to say no. But if you’ve said yes too much in the past, you may need to do some retraining to break people of the habit of asking you for every little thing. They’ll learn in time, especially if your response sounds something like one of these:
“That’s not my area of expertise. I’m happy to give you Cheryl’s contact info, and I’m sure she would be happy to help you with that question.”
“I think Tim, our intern, can order lunch for tomorrow’s meeting. I’ll forward the request on to him.”
“Typically the meeting organizer pulls the report for the presentation.”
When you’re asked to take on a project that is optional and you already have far more to do than you can get done right now, it’s also time to gracefully decline. You could say:
“This sounds like a really interesting initiative. Unfortunately, I’m already maxed out on what I can take on right now. I wouldn’t be able to get to this for a couple of weeks/months. Since this is important to you, it’s probably best to give this to someone who can give it more time and attention.”
Finally, when you’re in a meeting and people are talking about different tasks that need to get completed but you don’t have time to take on more, proceed with caution: Say nothing. Sit on your hands. Don’t volunteer. I literally have coaching clients who have me ask them every time we talk: “How many times did you volunteer for things?” Not offering to help is one of the best ways to say no.
Sometimes the tasks that need to get done fall within your responsibility, but it’s the timing of requests that causes issues. In these instances, when and where you can, it’s helpful to say no to unreasonable schedules.
I know that workplace expectations can vary, so depending on your job, you may not be able to use these strategies. But for those of you who have some latitude, consider these ways to push back on proposed deadlines.
If you get asked to do something small by today when in fact the deadline is somewhat arbitrary, counter with an alternate deadline. Even a day or two of margin can shift something from a frustration that keeps you at the office late to not a big deal:
“I would love to help you, but my time is already fully booked with commitments to [my boss, clients, etc.] today. I’ll get this back to you by Friday.”
This may annoy some people. But hopefully in time, it will teach them to give you more notice. Some departments put in policies around how much lead time they need to turn around documents — for example two or three days.
If you are often pinged in the evenings and the weekends, and you have the ability to set boundaries, do. Never having downtime can significantly contribute to burnout. One way to avoid unexpected after-hours work is to stay away from your work phone and email. But if you must say something, send a reply like this:
“Hi, Joe! I just wanted to let you know that I saw I got an email from you. I’ll review your request first thing when I get back in the office.”
Finally, if you receive a large project that you do need to do but the initial deadline isn’t reasonable given your other commitments, you can negotiate in a few ways. If the situation involves your boss, you can explain your different priorities and ask for direction on what to focus on first. If the situation involves someone other than your boss but you have the ability to set limits, you can come back to them with a counter proposal. If the situation involves someone other than your boss where you don’t have the authority to push back on deadlines, you may need to involve your boss in those conversations. In the end, the phrasing will likely sound something like this:
“I hear that you would like this by the end of the month. But with the other projects we have going on, it won’t be possible to meet that deadline. I would like to propose a deadline of mid-next month. Does that sound reasonable?”
These conversations may also lead to discussions around pulling in other resources, such as contractors, or rebalancing the work.
Saying no isn’t easy. But it’s worth it. As you consider using these suggested tips and phrases in your own work, make sure you communicate quickly. People can typically take a no more easily when you don’t delay.
And communicate with confidence. You don’t need to be overly apologetic. Say what you need to say and then move on. Remember, by saying no you’re saying yes to what matters most with your time.
Elizabeth Grace Saunders is a time management coach and the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Speaking. She is author of How to Invest Your Time Like Money and Divine Time Management. Find out more at www.ScheduleMakeover.com.
Read this article on Harvard Business Review