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In This Article

  1. Why is it so hard to say no?
  2. What are the benefits of saying no?
  3. Different Ways to Say No and Maintain Your Relationships

We want to say yes to everything—to give every task that falls into our hands the care and attention it deserves. But that’s impossible. There’s so much to do and not enough time to do it.

You’re juggling half a dozen projects and suddenly your boss asks you to take on another one.

You’re planning a big event but your best friend is begging you to help with a surprise birthday party.

You’re supposed to go to an out-of-town conference even though you’re drowning in work.

What do you do?

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by obligations. They eat away at your energy, leaving you mentally and emotionally exhausted. As a result, you miss out on new opportunities and put off your established goals. In other words? You stop focusing on what matters to you.

It’s time to say no.

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown outlines some of the reasons it’s hard to say no, what you can gain by saying no, and some actionable tips on how to become more confident in saying no.

The next time you need to focus on yourself and say “no” to requests, let this article be your guide.

Why is it so hard to say no?

Couple discussing how hard it is to say no without feeling guilty

Being productive begins with prioritizing what’s really important to you. Stop multitasking. To truly prioritize, you need to say no to almost everything except for what’s essential to reach your goal.

But “no” is easier thought than said. Why?

Saying no to others

If you don’t like the word “no,” you’re not alone. Most people shy away from “no” and there are plenty of psychological reasons why. The fear of saying no breaks down into a few general categories:

●   Fear of conflict

●   Fear of disappointing others

●   Fear of social awkwardness

●   Fear of negative consequences (getting fired, losing a friend, etc.)

Notice something? All of these involve other people. We are afraid of how “no” might cause others to perceive us in a bad light or damage our relationships. According to McKeown, we have trouble separating the request from the person requesting.

Let’s look at an example. Say a co-worker asks you to cover her work shift one evening, but you have a networking event you were planning on going to. Denying your co-worker’s request can make you feel like you’re denying her—but you’re not. Denying her request is not the same as denying her as a person.

In the short run, the person you are saying no to may feel annoyed or slighted. In the long run, they will respect your confidence and appreciate your honesty. Reframing “no” will help you jump the hurdle of feeling guilty and walk away stronger and more assertive.

Saying no to yourself

Woman in front of a mirror is saying no to herself

But sometimes the person you’re saying no to isn’t a friend or a co-worker—it’s yourself. The biggest reason it’s so hard to say no to ourselves is “sunk cost” bias. Think of a captain going down with his ship rather than abandoning it and save himself.

Sunk cost bias occurs when you continue to invest time, resources, and money into a losing proposition because you’ve “gone too far to quit.” This can apply to almost anything: businesses, relationships, politics.

When faced with an unsolvable problem or failing venture, ask yourself: What else can I do with this time or money if I cut my losses and do something else? By answering that question and realizing the opportunity cost of pursuing a losing proposition, it becomes easier to say no.

What are the benefits of saying no?

The benefits of saying “no” are monumental.

When you say “no” to a non-essential task, you are saying “yes” to the things that matter to you—spending time with family, pursuing hobbies, launching your business. We’re most effective when we say “no” to anything that won’t help us achieve our goals.

Saying no when you cannot commit to helping will gain you long-term respect and a reputation as an honest, reliable person.

If that’s not enough convincing, consider the effects on your health. Saying “no” to non-essential tasks can reduce your stress levels. This affects your physical and mental health. Stressed people are more prone to strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes. Mentally, anxiety and depression go hand-in-hand with stress.

Ultimately, learning how to say no will help you to tackle high-priority tasks with positivity and vigor. The quality of your work will increase. The quality of your life will increase.

Different Ways to Say No and Maintain Your Relationships

fist bumps by co-workers motivating each other to get things done

Remember that co-worker who asked you to cover her evening shift? She might be upset if you say you can’t help her. Fortunately, there are different ways to say no that will enable you to stand your ground without stepping on toes. Here are a few tried-and-true methods for turning down requests:

Embrace the awkward silence.

When someone asks you to do something, pause and count to 3 before you answer. The other person will probably feel a little uncomfortable. That’s good. When there’s silence in the face of a request, many people feel compelled to fill that silence with alternatives.

Meanwhile, you’ll appear to be thinking carefully about their request as opposed to shooting it down point blank.

Offer alternatives.

McKeown notes that there’s a world of difference between the word “no” and the phrase: “no, but . . .”

Maybe one of your employees asked you if it’s okay for them to work from home on Fridays. Unfortunately, you need them in the office on Fridays. Instead of giving a flat “no,” you can offer an alternative—something like, “No, but feel free to work from home on Tuesdays if you’d like.” This will give your employee the sense that you are trying to work with them to make their lives easier rather than brushing off their request.

In some instances, it may not be within your power or schedule to help someone—but maybe you know somebody who can. Offer to connect them and follow up to see how it works out.

When you offer an alternative or a smaller amount of help, you are relaying that you truly want to see the requester succeed and are willing to work with them towards a solution that works for everybody.

“Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”

3 men discussing their schedule and how to say no when dealing with supervisor requests

By offering to check your calendar, you are acknowledging that the request is important and that you would like to help. Simultaneously, you’re emphasizing that you may not have the time to help. Follow up after and confirm that you do not have the bandwidth to give their request the time and attention it deserves.

When dealing with a supervisor’s request, ask what you would need to de-prioritize in order to take on more work.

Saying no is often hardest when a supervisor is the one asking—or telling—you to take on another project. You can gracefully refuse by underscoring the effect that the new project would have on your current workload and then asking your supervisor to help you prioritize what’s most important to the company.

A good supervisor will be happy to help you shift around projects and priorities to ensure everything is done to the highest quality.

Establish your expectations and commitments early.

Are you about to be swamped? Do you not have the bandwidth to take on more responsibility? Tell your coworkers, colleagues, bosses, and anyone else who might ask for big chunks of your time. Set boundaries for them in advance. When nobody’s asked you for anything yet, you don’t need to say “no” at all.

You can also add an autoresponder to your email or a voicemail on your phone to tell your less-frequent contacts that you are busy and will not be accepting new work for a specified time frame.

Don’t be vague or drag it out.

Even if you don’t explicitly use the word “no,” your refusal should not be half-baked. Don’t feel like you need to spare anybody’s feelings with half answers. Phrases like “maybe,” “I’m not sure,” and “I don’t know” give the requester a false sense of hope. Stringing someone along only diminishes trust.

People pleasing is less important than taking care of yourself. Learning to say “no” will not only increase your productivity, but it will also diminish your stress and give you a greater sense of control over your schedule, your workload, and your life.