12 Straightforward Ways to Say "No"


Are you pressed for time right now? Do you think you'll have more time later? We commonly but mistakenly "imagine that we'll be less busy in the future," according to a study on time perceptions by business professors Gal Zauberman of UNC-Chapel Hill and John Lynch, Jr. of Duke University. There are a couple of reasons for this faulty assumption:

"...people underestimate task completion times for tasks stretching out in the future...For example, if the focal task is writing a paper, people ignore how long it has taken them to write papers in the past....[and] they are bad at imagining future competition for their time."

People (that is, you and I) are more apt to agree to future commitments fairly easily, even as we reject similar but more immediate requests. But our schedules stay just as crowded, often causing stress and deflating productivity. Learning to say "no" to certain requests with confidence can give you the time to pursue what's truly important to you.

Some of you may have no problem turning down requests. But for those who find it difficult, here are 12 straightforward ways to say no.

1. Make it clear that “no” isn’t the starting point for negotiation.

2. If you have a momentary lapse in resolve and become engaged in negotiations, take a step back and explain as quickly as possible that your response is indeed "no."

3. Screen your calls. It’s okay to let calls go to voice mail and return them in your leisure. And, you don’t have to return all calls though it’s wise to respond to those with whom you’d like to maintain a relationship. Some may think that not answering every single call is dodging responsibility, but you don’t have an obligation to be available 24/7 (unless you have a service-level agreement that says you do).

4. Develop an email strategy: either reply immediately with a firm “no” or take time to think about all inquiries and craft your response.

5. Before you get involved in any community or professional organization, find out what your responsibilities will be. Demonstrate that you do want to be active by committing to projects that interest you rather than helping with every single activity.

6. Say “yes” to what you love and schedule time in your calendar for these activities, which might be a hike in the mountains, workout at the gym, and cooking class at the community college. Let these scheduled appointments preempt other requests.

7. Don’t get upset with yourself if you agree to something that you later find you don't have time for, or couldn’t muster the courage to turn down; learn from these mistakes.

8. Just say “no” rather than giving details about why you can or can not make a certain event, help with a project, etc. Explanations aren't necessary, unless you have a previous understanding with a close friend or family member.

9. Think about your entire list of obligations before taking on more. A momentary break in your busy schedule may make you think that you have more free time than you actually do; look at all of your calendars (personal, professional, family) before making more commitments.

10. Be consistently straightforward and honest, and people will trust that your “yes” is “yes” and your “no” is “no.”

11. Say “no” to yourself when you really can’t squeeze one more thing into your schedule.

12. Accept “no” yourself. Don’t connive; misrepresent a request; push other people to commit to one of your projects, parties, etc. In this way, you surround yourself with people who have reasonably balanced lives. When your friends and associates realize that it’s okay to say “no” to you, they’ll more readily accept your “no.”

Don't feel guilty about saying no. Consider this advice from White Hot Truth via a collection of productivity tips on the OPEN Forum:

If you resent doing it — stop doing it. Outsource, delegate, phase it out, quit. Do whatever you have to do in order to get the resentment-inducing, energy-soaking tasks, projects, and clients off your plate. They are the biggest time suck there is. Those big resentment gigs slow you down, impede momentum and always seems to 'take forever.'

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Guest's picture

I need to work on this! Especially 7 & 8! I often times feel guilty when I've over committed and when I do so no I feel as though I have to justify my response with how busy I am....which often leads to the other person telling me how busy they are and so on.

Thanks for the reminder!

Guest's picture

I have kinda the opposite problem. I had no problem asking people to do things, but people seem to feel bad saying "No" to me. I've gone so far as to start including with my request, "No is an okay answer", especially if someone has a history of taking time to answer or commits to something and then later has to back out.
It's not going to bother me if someone isn't able to do something, I'd just really rather know up front rather than have them just fit me in.

Guest's picture

I tend to feel guilty when I say no, so I often say yes resentfully. I actually recently decided to try an experiment for the whole month of April and say no to things. I am documenting how I feel about saying no and how people respond to it, so I (hopefully) realize that it's not quite so bad. So far, I haven't actually had to say no since I've made the decision, but I am kind of looking forward to being able to say no.

I appreciate the reminders as to why it's actually okay to say no. I have to remind myself it doesn't make me selfish or a terrible friend or a bad person either.

Julie Rains's picture

You can get your friends to read this -- email them the link or tweet it to your followers. You may do a lot for other people and they want to return your kindness, but other than not asking that's all you can do -- they've got to figure it out on their own. Definitely consider not asking certain people if they aren't able to keep commitments; often you will find substitutes who are really eager to help. You could try for a general plea (via Facebook or a blurb in your organization's newsletter) just to make sure no one gets left off the volunteer list who really wants to be on it.

I love the idea of saying no for a month. I think the people who are important to you will understand.

Some of us are very relationship-oriented and agreeing to help a friend or colleague seems like a great way of building relationships, and it is a great way -- but if you're overbooked, this approach is counterproductive. Realizing that other people (not just me) had a difficult time predicting schedules made me feel much better -- apparently day to day demands are so variable, free time is hard to judge. I've been saying no more lately and though I have some free time, I am able to work off a backlog of projects.



Guest's picture

I'm the worst at saying "no", and when I do say "no", I usually give a bunch of excuses or look uncomfortable. I think there's a way to be assertive without being too harsh, and some of the best time management skills involve knowing what to say no to and when.

Guest's picture

I've always had trouble saying "no" and as a result have been horribly overscheduled for much of my life. Now, at 52, I am learning to think clearly about what would happen if I quit saying "yes" all the time.

A useful phrase that a therapist suggested: "That doesn't work for me." If I say "no" and someone tries to get around it, I will repeat "I'm afraid that doesn't work for me" and then change the subject, walk away or say goodbye and hang up the phone.

Note: This is very useful when being dunned by charities on the telephone. Last night one asked me to make a monthly commitment. I already donate to a fair number of causes, and cannot add another one. So I said, "I am not in a position to do that right now." The woman continued, "It doesn't have to be a lifetime commitment -- you could cancel it if your finances got tight." The old me would have felt guilty and given her a credit card number. Instead I was able to reply, "I am not in a position even to start a commitment. You need to call the next person on your list. Good luck, and goodbye."

And you know what? The world didn't end just because I said "no."