“Yup. Sure. I can get that done right away.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard those words come out of my mouth and then immediately regretted it.
One of the biggest issues modern workers face is having too much on our plates. We say yes to everything even though we know each new responsibility takes time away from actual meaningful work.
We aren’t taught how to say no. Yet it’s a skill we all need to improve. Saying that simple, two-letter word takes more than just moving your mouth. It takes commitment to your focus and priorities. Courage to stand up to people in power. And finesse to make sure you’re not just coming across as a jerk.
Yes, it’s difficult. But the results are worth it.
Saying no is one of our most important time management tools. After studying 225 million hours of working time in 2017, we discovered the average worker only has around 12.5 hours for meaningful work each week. This number’s consistent with other studies that have found up to 70% of our workday is spent on communication, administration, and work we don’t feel is aligned with our goals.
We have limited time to do work that matters. And the more we say “yes”, the lower that number drops.
The true cost of a “Super Quick Meeting” and why you need to say no to the smaller things
When you think of saying no to things at work, you’re probably thinking about the big ticket items: projects, additional work, researching and trying out new options or technologies.
While these are definitely things that take up big chunks of your time, they aren’t necessarily what’s eating away at your ability to do meaningful work.
On a larger timeline, most people have a pretty decent idea of how much work they can take on. We know that if we have a major deadline in the next few weeks, we should probably focus our work on that and not take on anything new.
What’s difficult is understanding what we can get done in a day (psychologists call this the Planning Fallacy).
It’s saying no to the small asks that happen daily—the quick catch-ups or “this will only take a minute” tasks—that’s truly difficult. And these are what end up eating into the majority of our day.
For example, let’s look at one of the most vicious time wasters we rarely say no to: the “super quick meeting.” Sure, 5–10 minutes to go over a bug or chat through a problem doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when you look at what you’ve actually committed to, it becomes more serious.
First off, if you’re doing any sort of work that takes deep focus, you’ll need wind-down and prep time before your meeting.
Then, there’s the meeting itself that, best-case scenario, only takes the planned 5–10 minutes.
Finally, you need to get back into your focused work zone, which, according to studies, can take up to 30 minutes.
So, what was supposed to be just 5–10 minutes in reality could be 5–10x that. By saying no to that super quick meeting, you could potentially save an hour or more of your day from busy work.
This isn’t the only example, but it does illustrate the problem we’re trying to address:
It’s not the big tasks that sink your productivity, but the tiny asks that pick it apart.
4 ways to say no at work with grace and confidence
There’s no denying it’s uncomfortable to say no. Especially at work.
We’re social creatures that crave approval, and saying no feels like the easiest way to get on someone’s bad side. Not only that, but in a work environment, saying no can feel like sabotage.
But it’s not. If anything, you’re doing everyone a favor by focusing on your most important work. Your “no” is really a “yes” to doing more meaningful work. Which isn’t always easy to see.
So let’s look at a few common scenarios where you might want to say no, and how to handle them in the best way possible.
Saying no to a meeting or small task? Automate your availability
In order to do deep, focused work, you can’t let your calendar end up looking like swiss cheese. But saying no to a meeting or quick catchup can be difficult, especially if you’re already in the middle of things. To keep your focused time safe, you can borrow this simple automation hack from RescueTime CEO Robby Macdonell:
- Step 1: Add a block for busywork and meetings to your daily or weekly schedule: There’s no way you’re getting through the week without a bit of busywork. So, be realistic and schedule that time for when it makes sense to you. Either set aside an hour block each afternoon, or make one day a week “Admin day.”
- Step 2: Add your availability to Calendly: Using Calendly, you can then set aside the specific blocks of time for when you’re available for quick meetings. In effect, you’re saying no with your calendar, which is easier for most people to understand. Plus, by separating yourself from the conversation, you insulate yourself from the bad decisions of saying “yes” when you shouldn’t.
By automating your availability, you’re able to say no to the distraction of a meeting or quick task while letting the other person still feel in control and respected.
And these blocks don’t have to just be wasted time if nothing gets scheduled. Deep Work author Cal Newport suggests giving these “reactive” blocks of time a secondary purpose—like clearing out your inbox.
Saying no to your boss? Be honest about your priorities
It’s intimidating to turn your boss down. Especially when they’re the “everything is important” type.
However, the goal of any good manager or leader is to help you do your best work. And weighing you down with additional tasks when you’re already swamped doesn’t help.
This might sound crazy, but the easiest way out of this situation is to simply explain your priorities and the consequences of taking on additional work. As New York Times journalist Alan Henry explains from his own previous experience as a manager:
“One of a manager’s fundamental responsibilities is to help workers sift through what’s important to work on now versus what can be worked on later. And for reference, often it isn’t the work with the noisiest sponsors that is the most urgent.”
If your boss is asking you to do something you feel you don’t have the time or resources to do, frame your “no” as a request to re-examine your priorities. Politely explain what you’re currently working on and ask what should take priority.
It’s not a flat out no, but the message is the same: You have limited bandwidth, and adding anything new means subtracting something that’s already there.
When you say no, you are only saying no to one option.
When you say yes, you are saying no to every other option.
No is a decision.
Yes is a responsibility.
Be careful what (and who) you say yes to. It will shape your day, your career, your family, your life.
— James Clear (@james_clear) January 24, 2018
As an example, I once worked with a web developer who was fantastic at this process. Whenever I tried to increase the scope of the project we were working on, he would respond with:
“Ok. If this is the priority I can start working on it right away. However, that does mean we won’t get X done for another 3 weeks.”
Understanding his limited resources both helped him maintain a realistic schedule and helped me understand how much I could ask of him. It wasn’t easy at first, but it trained both of us to know what the ideal workload was.
Saying no to your coworkers? Share your to-do list and calendar
There’s a guilt that naturally comes from turning down a coworker who’s asking for help. However, adding the responsibility of working with someone else (and to their deadline) can seriously get in the way of doing meaningful work.
However, there are a few different techniques for saying no you can use here:
- First, share your workload to get rid of the guilt of taking on more. This could be through automating your availability like we described above, or sharing your calendar and to-do list with the rest of your team. If you’ve set up a daily schedule with dedicated slots for meaningful work, that’s usually a “good enough” reason for turning down more work.
- Next, rehearse how you’ll turn down your teammate. According to UC Berkeley sociologist Christine Carter, “when we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely later to act in a way that’s consistent with our original intentions.” So, rehearsing how you’ll say no to your teammate in advance will make you more likely to follow through when the time comes.
- Finally, stay firm in your decision. If your teammate comes back later and asks again, it’s easy to go back on your initial “no”. But you need to remember why you turned them down in the first place. According to psychologist Dan Gilbert, we’re more likely to be unhappy if we change our mind, so you’ll be doing both yourself and your coworker a favor by staying firm in your decision.
Saying no to a client? Show them other options
How do you say no to the person putting a roof over your head? Whether you’re booked up for the next month or want to transition out of a current contract, it’s especially difficult to tell a client no. So, rather than a flat-out no, give them an alternative.
Author Chris Brogan suggests responding with a clear “Thank you for thinking of me. I’m going to have to pass,” and then following up with a referral to a colleague.
Not only are you maintaining your relationship with the client, but you’re also strengthening your relationship with your colleague. And who knows when they might return the favor.
Additionally, Jocelyn K. Glei, host of the Hurry Slowly podcast says this kind of candor can be off-putting at first. But that no one benefits from a long, drawn-out “no”:
“The upside of everyone being busy—if there is one—is that we’re all in the same boat. No one wants to waste their valuable time.”
Saying no isn’t being selfish. It’s being smart with the limited time you have each day.
When you say no, it shows that you understand your priorities and what’s important to you. And while it’s not always easy to do, it helps you craft a day filled with meaning and purpose.
Have you found your own way to handle saying no to people at work? Let us know in the comments.
Photos by Gemma Evans