How to Say No and Preserve Your Sanity

How to say noI have been asked several times by frazzled colleagues how I manage to avoid being overwhelmed with work. My answer is simple: I know how to say no.

It goes back to my agency days. If you’re not careful, your time gets parceled out to so many clients and projects that none get the attention they deserve. Or you end up working 80 hours a week.

So I always jealously guarded my time on behalf of my clients. This skill has been key both to my effectiveness AND my sanity. Saying yes to everything is a sure ticket to frustration, burnout and shoddy work.

If you’re constantly feeling overwhelmed in your work or your life, here’s a way to manage the competing demands that come your way. But first, a story.

Advice From My Grandfather

My grandfather was a wonderful man — kind, smart successful. He once gave me an interesting piece of career advice: “Never turn down an opportunity.”

Those words ring in my ears every time I say no to something. Am I lazy? Lacking in ambition? What’s my problem?

What I realized is, it all comes down to how you define opportunity. Not every request is an actual opportunity.

Opportunities Are Defined by Our Priorities

If you have a clear sense of your priorities, you’ll be better able to filter the opportunities that come your way.

For instance, in my consulting and speaking work, I look at three factors when weighing whether to take on an engagement:

  1. Pay: is the price right?
  2. Growth: is the work challenging and professionally rewarding?
  3. Opportunity: will it lead to other, bigger opportunities?

Now it’s rare that the answer to all three questions is a yes. So it’s a balance. I’ll do less challenging work if it pays the bills (and then some). And sometimes I may accommodate a client’s limited budget if it’s a really exciting project or may lead to something bigger.

I use a similar set of priorities for my commercial acting work:

  1. Pay: is the price right?
  2. Fun: will I have a good time doing it?
  3. Reputation: will I be proud of the work or embarrassed by it?

That third one is important to me personally and professionally. I’d rather my business clients not see me as, say, the face of erectile dysfunction!

How to Set Priorities in Your Life

I recognize that I have the luxury of choosing my assignments. It’s different when you’re working in a more traditional setting, like an office with a formal hierarchy and saying no isn’t an option.

But there are areas where you can exercise more control over your priorities: for instance, when you’re asked to join a committee or task force at work or volunteer in your community or at your child’s school.

Here are the criteria I use in those situations:

  1. Enrichment: will it be a personally or professionally rewarding experience that adds to my skills or happiness or enriches the community?
  2. Alignment: is the project well-suited to my expertise? (That is, can I really help?)
  3. Capacity: will it interfere with my other priorities?

You may be thinking, “No! The only criteria in a volunteer situation is the opportunity to help!” But I would argue that if you take on a project not suited to your skills, are you really helping?

Perhaps even more importantly, if you don’t have the time to devote, what are your chances of contributing in a meaningful way? So #3 is really critical. It’s the “x” factor that underlies much of my decision-making.

Saying No Is Not a Selfish Act

This is why there’s nothing selfish about saying no. Think of it this way: if you’re already at full capacity, taking on another task will:

  • Interfere with your ability to keep your original commitments
  • Prevent you from doing your best work on your new assignment
  • Add more unnecessary stress to your life

It’s important to remember: our time is finite, so our to-do list should be, too.

How to Say No Tactfully and Assertively

Which brings us to the often uncomfortable task of saying no. You want to help, you feel guilty for not helping, you want to be nice.

Those are all good things to feel. It means you’re probably a good person. But doing good starts with being good to yourself.

So if you’re not sure how to say no, do what I do. Put it this way:

“I’d love to help, but I have other commitments that would prevent me from giving your project the full energy and attention it deserves. It would also keep me from meeting those obligations I’ve already committed to.”

I find most people understand this. After all, if you made a promise to them, then failed to deliver because you later made another promise to someone else, they wouldn’t be too happy, would they?

In the end, it’s about being able to do your best work and not compromising your standards … or your sanity.

Do yourself a favor: learn how to say no!


[Image via J. Henning Buchholz]

[A version of this post originally ran in my monthly communication tips email]