8 Ways to Say No at Work – Without Feeling Guilty
My cube-mate Jenny said something a few weeks ago that surprised the heck out of me.
She has a wicked long commute, so in order to pick up her sweet baby boy from daycare before they close, she has to leave the office at a very specific time.
You know how that goes. Meetings run over, your boss needs something by the end of the day, people stop by your desk to share a laugh about goats who sound like people screaming.
The world conspires against you, and you’re rarely out the door when you want or need to be.
So what did Jenny say to me?
“I feel like you do a great job balancing work and home.”
The Old Me
I’ve been at the same company for more than 16 years. As a young’un, I would work all hours of the day and night when I had a big project to get done. I still remember one night where I worked straight through to 6:00 in the morning.
On my way out the door to head home for a quick shower and costume change, I ran into all the early birds just arriving for the start of their work day. Early birds with rather large eyes at the sight of me just leaving.
When I came back from my maternity leave after having Abby, I had a completely new role at the company. I felt like I had to prove myself. I came back as a 20-hour part-time employee, but I would regularly find myself working from home while Abby and the rest of the world were sleeping. So week after week, I racked up 25, 30, even 40 hours a week.
I bumped up my part-time status to 25 hours, and my total hours for each week bounced around 40-45. I went up to getting paid for 30 hours a week, and my norm climbed to at least 50. Even my boss told me to stop working so much.
Plus, I was just SO. FREAKING. TIRED. All the time.
My problem? I had no boundaries. When opportunity came knocking, I just didn’t know how to say no.
A Turning Point
Around the time I admitted defeat and became a 40-hour-a-week employee again, the company required all employees to get a health risk assessment at our on-site health clinic. A nurse would check our blood pressure, glucose, and BMI. And then the company would tally up all our stats so they could tell us how much money we’re costing everyone by being so sedentary and unhealthy and oh by the way, could we cut out that daily visit to the vending machine for a Honey Bun and Mountain Dew?
My appointment was on a Wednesday at 9:00 am. That morning, I was running late getting 3-year-old Abby out the door to drop her off at daycare.
I pleaded with her to hurry up, even though it was ME who pressed the snooze button and got us off track to start with.
After I had to nag her bite-by-bite to eat her breakfast, she didn’t like what she was wearing and wanted to change. I took a deep breath.
When I called her in to brush her teeth, she was building something with her blocks and wanted to finish. I said, No, we have to do it now. Mommy has an appointment. She drug her feet, then I brushed her teeth super fast and probably a little rougher than usual.
We finally got in the car, and I buckled her in. Then she remembered it was show-and-tell day at school, and she forgot to pick something out to bring. I said, loudly this time, No, we don’t have time.
When we got to school, she was still crying. And I was beyond annoyed.
She was clingy, of course, because her mom was being a TOTAL ASS to her, and she was looking for reassurance that she was still loved.
But I just wanted to get out the door and to my appointment before I was too late. So for the first time since the month she started daycare as an infant, I walked away while she was still crying for me.
The Cost of a Vial of Blood
Exactly 90 seconds after I got in the car and started driving away from the daycare, Abby wasn’t the only one crying.
What the hell was I doing? Treating my only child like crap, just to make it to a stupid appointment. An appointment I could easily reschedule.
I barely got it together by the time I pulled into the parking lot at work.
And I made it to the appointment just 5 minutes late.
The minute the nurse slapped a cotton ball and band-aid over the pinprick in the crook of my arm, I was back out the door to the parking lot. I rushed to the car, and the tears started again.
It felt like I’d never get there.
When I pulled into the daycare parking lot for the second time that morning, I ran inside and scooped up my girl into a hug and didn’t let go.
She’d moved on, of course, so she started squirming after a minute. It’s not like I’d done irreparable damage to our relationship, but it was a tear in the muscle we’d developed as a mother and daughter.
I stayed to play with her for a little while, then left for work again. As I walked out, I promised myself I would never again prioritize anything silly like that above my girl.
Every time I stayed up til 1:00 am catching up on work email because I had too much work to do during the workday, then woke up at 6:00 am to get us ready for the day—I wasn’t on my A game for Abby. My patience was razor thin, and my temper bubbled right at the surface, ready to spill over.
Every night I was stressed about all the things I had to get done that evening after she went to bed—which was pretty much every night, period—I rushed through story time at bedtime, skipping sentences and sometimes entire pages when I thought I could get away with it.
I wasn’t in the moment.
So I started saying no at work—and I’m still learning.
Here are a few things that have worked for me, plus a few others I found in articles and blogs. If this is something you’ve struggled with too, I hope these tips can bring you a little more balance. Our loved ones deserve it.
1. Remove “Later” From Your Vocabulary
Sure, you’re swamped right now. But you’ll have more time later, right? Wrong. According to a study on time perceptions, we typically “imagine that we’ll be less busy in the future.” But we are mistaken. Later is like a mirage in the desert. When you get there, you realize it was a trick of the mind, and now you’re screwed.
Stop telling yourself you’ll have more time later. It’s a lie.
2. Make a List
I may go a little overboard on lists myself, but here’s one list everyone should make: your top priorities. I’m not talking about things like pay the mortgage, finish the budget spreadsheet for your boss, or hit the grocery store so your kids don’t end up with leftover airline peanuts and soy sauce packets for their lunch. I mean the big, overarching priorities of your life.
Spend a few minutes and write them down. Here are a few ideas:
- Leave work by 5:00 pm to spend time with my family
- Sleep 7-8 hours each night
- Get at least 20 minutes of physical activity each day
- Spend most of my time at work on projects that use my strengths
- Establish myself as the go-to expert on spreadsheets throughout the company
Now that you’ve written them down, narrow your list down to the top 4-5 priorities most important to you. These are the things that MUST come before everything else. Write them down on a credit card-sized piece of paper and keep it in your wallet. Write them on your white board at work. Post a copy on your fridge at home. Make an image with Recite and set it as your computer’s desktop wallpaper.
Anytime you get an email, voicemail, or office visit asking you to take on something new, look at your list. If the new project doesn’t help you with your top priorities, odds are it’s NOT WORTH your time. In fact, taking on more work that doesn’t align with your priorities can make you look bad at work. You either won’t get the new project done on time (or at all), or your higher priority projects will have to take a backseat to make room for the new project. You’ll be about as effective as a T-Rex trying to make the bed.
3. Buy Some Time
Before you get some practice saying no, it will probably feel uncomfortable to say no right at the moment you’re asked to help. We often say yes just to avoid that uncomfortable feeling of letting someone else down. Buy yourself some time to review your priorities list and make peace with saying no.
Try this response: “Thanks for thinking of me. Let me check my project list to make sure this is something I can commit to. I’ll get back to you by the end of the day tomorrow.”
Then after you review your priorities, here’s how you say no: “After checking my project list, I can’t take this on and give it the attention it deserves right now.”
4. Screen Your Calls
Speaking of buying yourself some time, phone calls are horrible for putting you on the spot.
If you have trouble saying no in the moment, there’s no shame in screening your calls.
People have meetings. You’re allowed to take a bathroom break. No one expects you to be at your desk 24-7.
So take advantage of that, and let your phone calls go to voicemail.
5. Don’t Apologize
If you’re too overloaded to take on something new, that’s no reason to apologize. Everyone has a project list, and everyone has to prioritize what’s on their own list. You’re no different.
If you say “I’m sorry,” all you do is make yourself seem weak. And you’re not. You’re a strong mama bear guarding what’s important (or papa bear, or childless bear, as the case may be). That is no reason to apologize.
6. Make No Excuses
The person you’re turning down doesn’t care if your kid’s been sick all week. They don’t care if you have 10 other high-priority tasks to get done that week. They couldn’t give a rat’s behind that you’ll be up until 3:00 am cleaning because your mother-in-law just announced she’s coming to stay for the weekend.
As with apologizing, excuses come across as weak. They also put a condition on your “no,” giving the other person an opening to combat your excuse and convince you to do what they want anyway.
7. Say “Yes, But…”
This works best when it’s your boss asking.
Try this: “Yes, I can help out with this project. But I’ll have to put the planning for the VPs’ Parkour tournament on hold while I focus on this new project. Is that acceptable?”
The key here is to be specific about what you have to put on the back burner. It gives your boss a chance to weigh the two options.
8. Offer an Alternative
I don’t do this nearly enough. But after seeing it recommended in several articles, I’m going to try it out more. Follow up your “no” with a suggestion of someone else who might be able to help. This gives you a chance to throw new opportunities to more junior-level colleagues, and it demonstrates that you want to be helpful even if you can’t take on the work yourself.
Instead of offering up another person, you can also share your thoughts on possible solutions or approaches for the project—or even just offer a small amount of your time. For example: “Thanks for thinking of me, but I have to pass on this project right now. But I’d be happy to sit down with you for 30 minutes to brainstorm how to get the CEO to stop making dumbass comments to the media.”
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
What’s your trick for setting boundaries at work? Leave a comment to share!
Note: All information on this site is for educational purposes only. Happy You, Happy Family does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician.
I just found this post, and it’s great! I love these tips, and I think they can work in personal situations as well as in the workplace. Thanks for writing this.
Amanda, thank you so much! It’s such an important life lesson for me…and I’m *still* learning.