A shadow crosses your desk. It’s your supervisor, asking if you can squeeze in another “little project.” Your stomach drops as you picture your calendar, already packed with pressing assignments. Adding more will mean sacrificing quality—not to mention sanity. You take a deep breath and face your boss: “Sure, no problem.”
We’ve all done it at the office: Said “aye-aye” when everything—logic, reason, instinct—screams “no way!” But this failure to turn down excess work comes at a price. Over 65% of executives see overwhelmed employees as a critical issue facing their organizations. On a personal level, a host of health issues—diabetes, autoimmune illness, cardiovascular disease—have been linked to being overcommitted.
So if saying “no” at work is so important, why is it so hard? And how can you master this critical skill to focus on what really matters?
Balance self vs. other
Going the extra mile can earn you approval and appreciation at the office. But in the long run, people-pleasing doesn’t pay. According to research on collaborative overload, the most helpful, capable employees can become institutional bottlenecks as they give time and energy to an increasing number of projects.
Instead, the most effective workers strike a balance between self-interest and helping others. They’re able to practice what psychologists call differentiation, resisting external pressures and making thoughtful, independent decisions on which tasks to take on. The results: better relationships at work, greater job satisfaction, and less stress.
Question your assumptions
Often we agree to demands because we imagine that saying “no” would leave someone in a real bind—or that we’re the only person for the task. As a result, knowledge workers spend 41% of their time on tasks that could easily be handled by others.
Before responding to a request, one executive recommends you first “understand the ask“: Clarify how urgent the request is, what alternate options exist, or how someone else might help. By ensuring the task is appropriately assigned, you end up boosting efficiency across the board.
Practice makes perfect
Even if you’re determined to say “no,” it can be tough to craft an elegant refusal on the fly. The solution? Scripting your responses ahead of time.
Start by predicting likely scenarios: Does your co-worker over-delegate before going on vacation? Does your supervisor task you with redundant reports? Write out a clear, firm response to each situation and practice aloud.
Strengthen your skills with visualization techniques—the stuff elite athletes use to win gold medals. Close your eyes and imagine yourself nailing the perfect “no.” Make it vivid. Feel the rush of empowerment. See the respect in your manager’s eyes. Taste the amazing dinner you’ll be eating at home—because you’re not working late tonight.
5 great places to start
- Low-impact projects: You’ve likely heard of the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principal—the theory that 80% of results are generated by 20% of actions. This idea of uneven distribution holds the key to effectiveness at work: Focus the majority of your time and energy on high-yield projects—and send everything else to the bottom of your to-do list.
Remember, turning down low-impact projects isn’t self-serving or lazy. If you were hired to deliver results, then you’re getting paid to prioritize. So the next time a project crosses your desk, ask, “Is it essential? Does it add value? Support our goals?” If the answer is no… you have your answer.
- Scope creep: Guardrails can be your BFF, keeping you and your core projects from tumbling into a sea of additional requests. Set boundaries early, firmly, and clearly: Ambiguous project definition is one of the top five causes of scope creep.
If the scope still expands, speak up. Often clients don’t know where to draw the line between necessary and nice-to-have. By tactfully questioning their requests and clarifying the impact of nonessential tasks on the timeline, you’re keeping the project on track and helping everyone reach the finish line faster.
- Always-on communication: From social media to email to texts, constant communication at work has become a time and energy vampire. According to one productivity study, professionals spend nearly 40% of their day receiving and managing information, versus actually putting information to use.
It takes discipline and chutzpah to check email on a limited basis, leave low-priority messages unanswered, and turn off distracting notifications. But imagine the payoff: Delicious swaths of uninterrupted time that encourage a flow state and dramatically increase your effectiveness.
- Superfluous meetings: Whoever said that showing up is 80% of success wasn’t talking about meetings. According to nearly half of workers surveyed, “too many meetings” is the number one drain on productivity. If you’re looking to carve out time for high-priority work, gratuitous gatherings should be first on the chopping block.
Start by decluttering your calendar. Which recurring meetings are more of a habit than a help? Where is your department already well represented? Is your expertise truly needed, or can a subordinate step up? Don’t be afraid to ask organizers directly whether your attendance is necessary: Often they’ve extended an invite out of a misplaced desire to be inclusive.
- Ill-timed opportunities: Whether it’s a coveted promotion or a cool creative project, big opportunities can be especially hard to turn down. But taking on a new role or responsibility when you lack the time or resources is a recipe for disaster. This should be your chance to shine—not face-plant.
Start by separating the dream from reality. Is the timeline feasible? Are the demands achievable? Are you setting yourself up for success? Accepting an assignment when you foresee sub-par work or missed deadlines will only tarnish your reputation.
If you still feel like it’s a can’t-miss opportunity? Then start ruthlessly scanning your other commitments for things to cut. Before long, you’ll be an expert at saying “no” to the unnecessary, once again the master of your calendar and your career.