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Mastering the Art of Saying “No”

For many of us, there never seem to be enough hours in the day.  Between the demands of our jobs, our families, and any other number of factors – there is always too much to do and not enough time.

There are many time management strategies which focus on helping us figure out how to get all the things on our list done within the finite amount of time available to us.  But what true success was less about trying to organize an endless list of things into a schedule…and more about reviewing the list of things itself?

While the idea of mastering our time management challenges by learning to say “no” seems so simple, many of us struggle to actually do this.  Let’s explore why and how we might be able to make progress -for the benefit of ourselves and those around us.


When “Yes” Becomes a Barrier to our Own Success

Take a moment to look at the current state of your to-do list.  More likely than not, at least a few line items have been put there by someone else; it can feel very uncomfortable to refuse a request for help from a colleague.  After all, no one wants to be perceived as rude, or unhelpful, or not a team player.  However, it may be worthwhile to consider how saying “yes” by default may actually work against our best interests:

  • An instant answer isn’t always the best one. Whether it’s in a casual conversation with a colleague or a formal meeting situation at work, a request for someone else to do something is frequently met with immediate – even sustained – silence.  Oftentimes, “yes” is offered less as a tool to get the task done, and more to break through the awkward pause.  However, it’s not selfish or rude to request some time to consider whether offering your support is actually the right thing to do.
  • It misaligns expectations. If you’re the person who is constantly offering to take on additional tasks or support projects and tasks not actually assigned to you, especially when you do so out of fear of conflict, or fear of disappointing others, you are not helping other people to understand your true capacity and personal boundaries.  This can lead to others holding you to unrealistic expectations over time.
  • Underappreciation can breed resentment and burnout. Defaulting to “yes” can result in a person taking on a lot of extra work they don’t have the capacity to perform.  In addition to risking burnout and exhaustion as they put in sustained extra efforts to meet additional expectations, this effort can often go unnoticed if colleagues are starting to view the performance of above and beyond as a basic expectation.  This can lead to feelings of resentment or anger when the extra work is no longer recognized or appreciated.


How to Say “No” Effectively

Now that we have put some thought as to how saying “yes” is not generally a good default – how then is it possible to say “no” in a manner which preserves both our working relationships and our career ambitions?

  1. Take your time to give a response. Defaulting to “no” is likely to be just as problematic as defaulting to “yes.”  When you are faced with a decision on whether or not to do something new, make sure you take the time to fully understand what is being asked of you in the first place.  Ask clarifying questions about the estimated effort required, the timeline on which the task(s) must be completed, and any support that must be in place to ensure success.  It’s not uncommon for a “simple ask” to end up taking more time and/or resources than originally contemplated.  By taking the time to clarify exactly what is needed, you help both yourself and the person asking.  Practice resisting the urge to respond immediately – try “This sounds interesting; let me have a few days to think about how my involvement may impact the other things I’m working on right now.”  This will give you the time and space you need to make the right decision.
  2. If it makes sense to do so – offer to support a solutions brainstorm. Every new request for help needs to be assessed against your ongoing relationship with the person asking.  In cases where you value the relationship but aren’t in a position to support the request, it may be worth your time to offer a small lifeline.  Brainstorming potential solutions will not only showcase your ability for strategic thinking, but it can also result in different ways to achieve the desired outcomes.
  3. When you say no, be prepared to help explain why. Especially when a deadline may be looming on the horizon, it’s not uncommon for requests for help to be directed to people who don’t have the relevant expertise or skill sets.  It can also be tricky to navigate requests for help when there is a power imbalance between the two people involved in the conversation.  This is where practice is needed to say no gracefully.  If you find yourself in a position of needing to decline a request for help, offer the person asking a sense of why.  Be truthful and be clear.
  4. Stand by your decision. We all know determined people in our lives – if you need to say no to someone who tends towards the more assertive side of the personality spectrum, be prepared to repeat your answer in the wake of multiple asks.  This is where having a clear rationale for your decision to sit something out will prove very helpful – especially to you.  Once you’ve made a decision, make a commitment to yourself to stand by it.  (This can be more easily said than done and may take practice!)


Practice Makes Progress

Saying no is an essential skill for effective leadership. By exercising discernment in decision-making, leaders prioritize tasks, resources, and goals, ensuring alignment with overarching objectives. Saying no establishes boundaries, fostering clarity and focus within teams. This clarity bolsters productivity by preventing scope creep and distractions, enabling the efficient allocation of time and energy.

Saying “no” in the workplace can be a frightening prospect.  However, by being clear on our priorities, we become clearer on those things which distract from them.  Practice makes progress – start one request at a time.  Over time, taking a more deliberate approach to considering requests for help will become a positive habit.  Good luck in your time management goals!


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