How many times have you heard those words come out of your mouth and then immediately regretted it?
Learning how to say no is one of the most important workplace (and life) skills you can develop. Yet saying that simple, two-letter word takes more than just moving your mouth. Human beings are social creatures. We thrive on reciprocation and hate being seen as confrontational.
Saying no takes commitment to your focus and priorities. Courage and confidence to stand up to people in power (or who give you money). And humility, finesse, and gratitude to make sure you’re turning people down without coming across as a jerk.
No wonder it’s so much easier to just say yes to everything and then “try to figure it all out later.”
We say yes because we don’t want to come across as mean, lazy, or unhelpful. But if we’ve learned anything studying how millions of workers spend their day, it’s that we have less time for meaningful work than we think. (In fact, the average worker only gets around 12.5 hours of focused work time a week!)
So how do we learn how to say no to unreasonable requests, pointless meetings, busy work, and bad clients?
Let’s assume we all understand the main reason to learn how to say no is so you can say yes to the things that matter. Saying no isn’t about denying yourself and others. It’s about choosing and prioritizing what deserves your limited time.
If we follow this train of logic then it’s probably also safe to assume the first things that come to your mind are the “big ticket” items that are vying for your time. The projects, research, and commitments that take large chunks of your day away.
But while these are definitely choices you should consider deeply, they’re not where most of us over-commit ourselves. Instead, it’s saying yes to the small things that cause us to feel overwhelmed, stressed, and work longer hours than we should.
Have a pretty decent idea how much work they can realistically take on. What’s difficult is understanding what we can get done in a day (psychologists call this the Planning Fallacy).
We’re overoptimistic about how much energy, focus, and attention we have each day. And so we say yes to every “quick catch up” or “this will only take a minute” task that gets tossed on our plate.
Unfortunately, this is where it all goes wrong.
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 with a colleague doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But when you look at what you’ve actually committed to, it becomes much 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. In a best-case scenario, it only takes the planned 5–10 minutes. Finally, you need to get back into your focused work zone, which can take up to 30 minutes according to studies.
What was supposed to be just 5–10 minutes in reality could be 5–10x that! By learning how to say no to that super quick meeting, you could potentially save an hour or more of your day.
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.
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 you’re sabotaging someone else’s hard work.
But you’re not. And 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. But this isn’t always easy to see.
Instead, you need to learn to say no to your boss, coworkers, customers, and clients in a way that shows your good intentions, and leaves them feeling good about the outcome.
Especially if you are overworked. The simple fact is that many of us will feel overworked at some points throughout our careers. It’s when work starts digging into your personal life that it becomes an issue.
Just remember: Before requesting a meeting with your manager, be sure to convene with a trusted cohort. Make sure you’re actually overworked — not just overwhelmed.
If you are overworked, meet with your manager and have an honest conversation. Seek advice. Be open-minded. Is there anything you could be doing differently? If your manager is unreceptive, you’ll have to tackle the issue yourself and try saying no. Of course, if it gets too bad, know there are more career opportunities out there. You’re never stuck.
Check out my related post: Do you have the long view?