So you’ve said “yes” - perhaps even something along the lines of, “totally, absolutely no problem!” - to another project you definitely do not have time for in your busy week. Or maybe you’ve been hitting accept on every meeting invite that lands in your inbox despite an already jam-packed calendar, or are taking on extra responsibilities that are stretching you too thin.
And if you’ve been saying yes to everything long enough – you might have found your way to this article feeling chronically overrun, stressed, and mentally exhausted. Sounding a little too familiar? You wouldn’t be alone in struggling to create healthy boundaries around work and say ‘no’ to things you don’t have time for.
In fact, 78.7% of workers report feeling stressed by increasing task loads and lack of time to get it all done every week, and a shocking 77% admit they’ve dealt with burnout at their current job. But despite the overwhelming statistics suggesting employees already have too much on their plate – why do professionals still have a hard time saying ‘no’ to things outside their bandwidth?
In this blog post, we’re going to share how to professionally say ‘no’ at work in 7 practical scenarios, so you can better plan around your capacity for more productive workweeks and a healthier work-life balance.
The benefits of saying no at work
Between juggling an average of 25.6 meetings, today’s individual contributors manage to complete only 53.5% of planned tasks every week. The reality is, when employees are spending their days sitting through meetings that could have been an email or context switching around a monstrous to-do list – it’s basically impossible for them to be truly productive, even when they’re super ‘busy’ every day.
Instead, these teams end up with meeting fatigue and no time for high-value focused work – with exhausted employees who feel unmotivated and dissatisfied with their jobs. A staggering 60.2% of professionals reported being burnt out as of October 2022, and this doesn’t just negatively affect team productivity in the immediate future. The long-term consequence of this kind of work culture contributes to the rise in employee disengagement that has been fueling movements like quiet quitting and even The Great Resignation, which in turn puts even more stress on the remaining workforce.
Ironically, taking on more than you can handle actively jeopardizes your productivity. Trying to manage an unrealistic workload leads to rushed, lower quality work, reduced performance, and increased time anxiety and stress. And when there simply isn’t enough time during the workweek to get it all done? It’s not uncommon for employees to sacrifice their personal time to try and keep up – with up to 26% of work being completed outside of standard working hours.
Those same ‘high achieving’ employees actually saw some of the highest levels of exhaustion and burnout, with many of them reporting that they were ready to quit. Even though it can be difficult, there are many benefits in learning to say ‘no’ at work.
Top benefits of saying no at work:
- Improve your time management by more accurately planning your capacity.
- Reduce stress by having enough time to get things done before deadlines.
- Boost productivity and work quality by having enough time for focused deep work.
- Streamline performance by working towards true priorities with less decision paralysis.
- Establish a healthy work-life balance by setting boundaries around work.
- Prevent burnout with sustained motivation and better job satisfaction.
But even knowing all of these benefits, why can it be so difficult to say ‘no’?
Why is it hard to say no at work?
Most professionals are aware when they’re stretched too thin at work, and yet still continue saying ‘yes’ to extra tasks, meetings, or additional responsibilities they don’t have the time or energy for. While it might seem counterintuitive, there are many reasons why it can be hard to say ‘no’ at work.
Reasons it’s hard to say no at work:
- Not wanting to disappoint others
- Believing it would be rude/lazy/selfish
- Trying to avoid conflict or confrontation
- Feeling like you have to prove yourself
- Struggling with imposter syndrome
- Dealing with hustle culture mentality
- Fearing consequences or retribution
- Wanting to genuinely help the team
Professionals who are inherently people pleasers or who struggle with imposter syndrome might have a more difficult time setting boundaries around work, and research has found women find it even harder to say ‘no’ than their male counterparts.
Ultimately, your time and energy are a limited resource. Learning to identify urgencies vs. priorities, actually deprioritize tasks and meetings, and decline requests for your time when you simply don’t have any to spare is key to maximizing your productivity. And while it might seem impossible now - like anything - learning to say ‘no’ takes time and practice, especially when you’re deconstructing those pesky preconceived notions.
7 examples of how to say no politely at work
There are many ways to decline non-priorities and strategically communicate what you don’t have time for. In some cases, you don't even have to say the dreaded two-letter word at all! Let’s take a look at some examples of how to effectively say ‘no’ and set healthy boundaries with these 7 common work scenarios.
1. How to say no to your boss
Saying ‘no’ to your manager or boss can be particularly challenging, but communicating your limits to superiors is especially important. Your manager wants for you to succeed in your role, so being transparent about things like your capacity and availability can help them create more effective plans for both you and the rest of the team.
A 1:1 meeting with your boss is a great opportunity to bring up your concerns about something you don't have the bandwidth for. Instead of just saying ‘no’ – actually walk your manager through the priorities you’ve currently planned your time around, and explain what you would need to punt to complete their request. It shows you’re not shirking responsibility or work, and also allows your manager to offer feedback about whether your priorities are aligned with their goals for you. With this approach, they can effectively give you permission to say ‘no’ when appropriate or help take some things off your plate to make time for a priority request.
2. How to say no to meetings
Meetings have increased almost 70% across the board since 2020. Unfortunately this means many professionals end up sitting through a lot of unproductive meetings every week. Instead of just saying 'no' to meetings you’re not actively participating in – actually reach out to the organizer about whether your attendance is really required or whether you could get a readout instead.
In reality, organizers might not review the attendance list for recurring meetings or even realize that the event might be pulling you from more high-value task work. This approach can clear up some non-priority meetings in your calendar, and moreover creates pressure for organizers to review the value of work meetings on the team calendar that might be pulling employees from productive independent work.
Bonus tip: If meetings keep getting scheduled in your personal time, you can also try setting working hours for your meetings in Google Calendar. If you want even more scheduling control (to protect time in the morning for deep work for example) – try a productivity app like Reclaim.ai which allows you to set your working hours and unique meeting hours for when you’re available for collaboration. Suggesting a weekly company-wide no-meeting day might also be a good idea to make sure everyone has time defended for focused work to get things done.
3. How to say no to work during personal hours
Constantly overextending yourself is not a sustainable solution. Putting in extra effort is fine every once in a while when necessary, but saying ‘no’ to extra hours at work when it’s exhausting you or compromising your work-life balance is important. If your workload is simply unmanageable in the work hours that you do have available in a week and you’re finding yourself burning personal time to keep up – it’s important to communicate the situation to your manager before you burn yourself out.
Share what priorities have been taking up all your time and what is left over. This allows for your manager to tell you where your work hours would be best allocated, and help resolve where the extra workload can be deprioritized or delegated so you're not overworking yourself.
Bonus tip: This also means setting personal boundaries with yourself! If you’re already doing your best to be time efficient with a heavy workload, learn that stepping away at the end of the work day - even if you haven’t finished everything - is okay. You can only do so much.
4. How to say no to a project at work
Saying ‘no’ to an extra project at work starts with you knowing your own capacity. If you haven’t already heard of time blocking, it’s a calendar management technique in which you schedule realistic time ‘blocks’ in your calendar for each individual to-do you have to complete including meetings, routines, and task work. This method allows you to better plan your workload around your availability every week, and identify whether or not you have time to take on a project with everything you already have going on.
Time blocking also allows you to actually show where your time is committed to support why you have to say ‘no’, and can help you audit your time to analyze your productivity. By learning how to effectively prioritize your tasks around your actual availability, you can align your efforts with true priorities every week and decline non-priority projects.
Bonus tip: Being able to identify urgencies vs. important tasks is key here! Try using a tool like the Eisenhower Matrix to effectively sort your projects by priority when everything feels really important. That way if something important does come up last minute, you can reprioritize your schedule to accommodate without getting blocked by decision paralysis.
5. How to say no professionally in an email
While communicating face-to-face (or the virtual equivalent!) is usually preferred, sometimes an email is the best way to reach someone when you have to decline an invite or request.
A foolproof approach to politely saying ‘no’ in an email is to: thank them for reaching out, briefly explain why you don’t have the bandwidth for their request right now, offer an alternative time frame for when you might be able to realistically get it done, and then kindly signing off. If you’re looking for some email templates to help you get started in the right direction, you can check out these 7 templates for inspiration.
6. How to say no to more responsibility at work
Getting a promotion at work is usually something to be celebrated! But what happens when you’re getting assigned responsibilities that you can't manage or aren't being appropriately compensated for?
It's important to be crystal clear on the expectations of your existing role from the beginning. When new duties arise, consider negotiating the additional responsibility as an opportunity for career growth (if that aligns with your goals) or, alternatively, clearly set a boundary stating that you can’t take on more with your existing workload.
Bonus tip: A big part of learning to say ‘no’ - at work, and in every other area of your life - means learning to respect your own worth. The rise-and-grind mentality has ingrained in many professionals that personal boundaries must be sacrificed for success. This hustle culture has led many employees to run themselves into the ground, while creating work environments that don’t support sustainable productivity or a positive company culture. Saying ‘no’ to responsibilities outside of your job scope or compensation sets a boundary about how you're willing to be treated. And that’s powerful not only in protecting your own wellbeing at work – but also in paving the way for future professionals to have a standard for their value on a team.
7. How to say no without saying no
Even with these tips, saying ‘no’ might still be uncomfortable for some of us. The good thing is that there are ways to actually build out a system that works for you in avoiding meeting conflicts and over-scheduling.
Time blocking your calendar with all of your commitments is a great start in sharing your actual availability with others who are trying to schedule with you, or gauge your capacity for new projects. Reclaim can automate the process by syncing tasks right to your calendar with integrations to your favorite project management apps, and even find the best time to schedule your important recurring habits. Another tip is to add your personal commitments to your work calendar to help avoid awkward scheduling conflicts. Reclaim makes syncing all of your calendars easy with the Calendar Sync feature so you can avoid having to say ‘no’ to another double-booked meeting altogether.
Say no at work without feeling guilty ❤️
Saying ‘no’ to extra work is an appropriate time management technique to help you stay aligned with your true priorities and create healthy boundaries around work. Unfortunately, many professionals have been falsely conditioned to believe that setting boundaries at work makes them rude, ungrateful, or lazy.
The truth is, protecting your time and energy by deprioritizing tasks and meetings outside your capacity actually allows you to be more productive and motivated in the long run which is a win for employees and employers. And by creating transparency around your availability and effectively communicating it to your team and managers – you can start to create a schedule that works for your success and protects your wellbeing.
How do you feel about saying ‘no’ at work? Any tips we missed that you’d like to share? Tweet us @reclaimai to get in on the conversation! We love hearing from you.
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