Balancing Act: Mastering the Art of Saying No at Work


You’ve been there before – a mountain of paperwork piled on your desk, numerous deadlines hanging over you like a dark cloud, and the feeling of drowning in a sea of endless assignments. Then your boss pops in and asks if you have time to take on another project for them.

Whether you’re crunching to hit your numbers at the end of the quarter or your team just has more work than people to do it, an imbalance in your workload is bound to happen at some point in your career. Because most employees don’t create their own schedules, speaking out when the workload becomes too much is easier said than done.

Learning to say no when you’ve got too much on your plate is a skill you’ll need as you advance in your career and avoid being so overwhelmed that you’ll quit.

Luckily, there are ways to approach this sensitive topic.

Why learning to say no at work is important

There’s a lot more at stake than just your sanity when it comes to an unbalanced workload. If left alone for too long, many employees can begin to feel resentment toward their managers and employer, burnout, and thoughts that it might be time to quit their job.

For many, the job isn’t the problem, it’s the workload. Learning to say no at work will help you create healthy boundaries, promote a healthy work-life balance, and prevent burnout.

Here are four actionable steps you can take today to master the art of saying no.

1. Establish boundaries early and often

The cycle of saying yes to everything is all too easy to fall into. You’ve just started a new job or you’re working hard for a promotion, so you find yourself saying yes to any task that comes your way. Before you know it you’ve established yourself as someone who never turns down a project!

Preventing this cycle from happening can be as simple as establishing your boundaries early and often. This can come in the form of communicating when your working hours are, making it clear that you don’t answer emails when you’re on vacation, and saying no to projects that could be delegated to other employees.

Practice saying this: “Hey, I’d love to jump on this project but I’m already juggling a couple of big assignments that are taking up a lot of my time. Let’s brainstorm a few ideas on who might be a good fit for this project instead.”

2. Learn how to prioritize projects

Sometimes your dream project falls into your lap and much to your dismay, you don’t have time to tackle it. Don’t panic! Part of learning to say no is learning to prioritize your workflow.

If you’re offered a hand in an important or high-priority project, it might be a good idea to meet with your manager and discuss how it will fit into your workflow. This gives your manager the chance to move around smaller, less important assignments to allow you to work on the things that really matter.

A project management tool can help you stay organized, but communication is needed to prioritize.

Practice saying this: “Hey, you caught me in the middle of a really busy part of the quarter. Let’s set up a meeting and discuss the priority level of this project. We can talk about what other projects I’m working on that this can take priority over.”

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3. Master the art of “maybe”

There are some situations in which the right project comes along at the wrong time. While it’s true that most managers assume their project should take the highest priority, the truth is that most deadlines can be moved.

Sometimes timing is everything! Mastering the art of saying maybe and offering a more flexible deadline to whoever is giving you the project helps put you in control of the situation. It still allows you to turn down projects you don’t have time for, but also keeps you from having to turn down assignments you want to work on.

Practice saying this: “This week is pretty booked for me, but there’s a chance I could get to this later in the month. Let’s check back in on this in two weeks. If the timeline is flexible, I might be able to work it into my schedule.”

4. Know when it’s time to say no

There will always be those times when you simply can’t take on a new project – and that’s okay. It may seem scary to tell your boss that you don’t have the time, but you will save yourself and everyone else a lot of trouble if you’re honest about what you can accomplish.

The key is to be firm, but stay polite. Come prepared with examples and an explanation of why you are not the right person for the assignment based on your current workload. Don’t be afraid to communicate to your boss that you feel burnt out. Open and honest conversation is the only way to stop the steady stream of project proposals you don’t have time to handle.

Practice saying this: “I really appreciate you thinking of me for this project, but I won’t be able to fully dedicate the necessary time or energy to it. I want our company to put out our best work possible, and with my current workload, I couldn’t deliver. Thanks for thinking of me; maybe next time I’ll have more time.”

You’re in control of your career

As with anything in life, learning how to say no gets easier with practice. While these conversations may be uncomfortable at times, but learning how to have them is a skill that will carry you far in life and your career.

Photo by Felipe Furtado on Unsplash

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