How to Say No at Work When You’re the Kind of Person Who Always Says Yes

TPH junior writer Carson Kohler works at The Penny Hoarder office.
TPH junior writer Carson Kohler works at The Penny Hoarder office. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder Carson Kohler, The Penny Hoarder

It was March 6, and I was close to giving up.

I was in the midst of my final semester of graduate school. I was interning more than 30 hours a week at a Denver magazine while completing my final deep-dive project, which turned into 250 pages of research.

My project’s May 1 deadline seemed unattainable.

In my weekly update to my professors, which was two days late (totally out of character for me), I wrote:

“I’m sorry this is late this week. I definitely need to learn to say no. The past two weeks have been busy and exhausting, and I haven’t been able to work on my project as much as I anticipated.”

I ended the email asking for a deadline extension for my first draft, something that could have derailed my projected May graduation and cost me hundreds of dollars for yet another semester of tuition.

A few days later, I received an email from one of my professors, Berkley Hudson. His sweet Southern demeanor always calmed me, even through a computer’s screen.

He wrote: “It is remarkable to watch you grow, mature, think, find ways to get things done. To the issue of saying No, so you can say Yes to what truly matters: I like Greg McKeown’s approach.”

He linked to a McKeown post titled “If You Don’t Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will.”

I remember tearing up in relief, then reading and rereading the piece.

It opens with an anecdote about Mahatma Gandhi, who practiced saying no. “A ‘no’ uttered from the deepest conviction is better than a ‘yes’ merely uttered to please, or worse, to avoid trouble,” he once said. He used this idea to prioritize two hours a day with his grandson.

McKeown failed to apply this to his life when one of his daughters was born. He committed to a client meeting when his wife and hours-old baby girl were still in the hospital.

And nothing even came of the meeting.

The Importance of Saying No in the Workplace

I ended up finishing graduate school on time, and I started feeling more fulfilled as I took some control back and started to prioritize my life.

That is, until I found myself making the same mistake at my new full-time job.

I’d forgotten, once again, how to say no. I admitted to my editor at The Penny Hoarder, Caitlin Constantine, that I was taking on too many tasks.

I had become the “yes man,” who was always willing to step in and help, but doing that was starting to take away from my obligations as a writer.

A portrait of Keisha Blair, who is co-founder of Aspire-Canada, an online platform for young professionals.
Courtesy of Keisha Blair

Keisha Blair, co-founder of Aspire-Canada, an online platform for young professionals, sums it up perfectly in an email to me: “Taking on too many projects at work could actually put you in more jeopardy and put your integrity and reputation on the line. When things go wrong because you’re bogged down with way too many projects, you will be blamed for not ‘project managing’ well enough.”

Alison Brehme, founder of Virtual Corporate Wellness, agrees. Saying yes too often leaves you feeling “frazzled, overwhelmed and stressed.” She says she sees it most often in career-driven individuals — the ones who want to be known as the go-to person on the job.

A portrait of Alison Brehme, who is the founder of Virtual Corporate Wellness.
Courtesy of Alison Brehme

That was me. Frazzled, overwhelmed and stressed, wanting to be that go-to “yes” person.

Here’s How to Know When You Should “Just Say No”

Here’s my weakness: I don’t stop to think. If someone approaches me with a new project or story idea, I immediately nod and say, “That sounds great!”

I don’t take a moment to think, “Well, I have this, this and this, too… Is this really the best use of my time?”

I’m also one of those people who would rather just do something myself so it’s done the way I want it to be done. (OK, that sounds bad, but Type-A folks know what I’m talking about. I think it stems from all those lousy group projects we had to do back in school.)

Upon hearing feedback from a number of professionals, the general consensus is to take a pause…

…then ask yourself these questions:

1. Is This Unethical, Illegal or Against My Values?

This perhaps goes without saying, but if a superior or co-worker asks you to do something you don’t feel comfortable with, say no.

2. What Are My Priorities Right Now?

Judy Peebles, a career and business coach, suggests keeping a list of priorities and current projects at your desk. When someone approaches you with a new task, you can refer back to that list to see how — and if — it could be added to the mix.

3. Does This Fit With My Job Description?

Remember: You were hired to perform certain duties and tasks, and if you are getting pulled away from those, then perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your responsibilities with a manager.

Jennifer Davis is the founder and leadership coach at Jennifer Davis Coaching.
Courtesy of Jennifer Davis

Jennifer Davis, founder and leadership coach at Jennifer Davis Coaching, says this is inevitable; unforeseen things come up and extra hands are required. However, if the trend continues, then it might be time to speak up.

“Oftentimes, others will ask you to do something if they or their team are not as competent as you,” she says. “The more you continue to do their work for them, the longer it will take for them to learn to do the job well.”

4. Will This Help My Career in the Long Run?

You probably don’t need to ask yourself this for a small task that’s delegated to you, but think about it when a bigger, more time-consuming project appears.

This was suggested by Loren Margolis, a master career coach over at The Muse.

For example, you might’ve seen me appear on a few Facebook Live broadcasts awhile back. That was out of my realm — and why I prefer to be a writer, hidden behind a screen. I could have asked myself if these broadcasts were worth my time, if it would help me accomplish my one-, two- or five-year plan.

Probably not, because none of that involves being on camera.

How to Say No Without Everyone Hating You Forever

OK. Step 1 to saying no: Know that no one is going to hate you. And if they do, then there’s an issue on that side that we don’t have time to dive into right now…

Step 2: Say no in the right way.

Easier said than done, but here are four strategies to help you say no — so no one hates you forever and ever.

1. Ask If You Can Have Some Time to Think About It

A portrait of Valerie Streif, who is a senior advisor at The Mentat.
Courtesy of Valerie Streif

Even if your gut already says no, just “consider” the request.

That doesn’t mean you need to think about it so much that the no becomes a yes. It just means that a pause to consider makes you seem more considerate and empathetic, according to Valerie Streif, a senior advisor at The Mentat.

“…you contemplate instead of just react,” she says in an email. “It will prevent people from being deterred from approaching you.”

2. Smile — and Say No Face-to-Face

Delivery is key when it comes to saying no.

Streif encourages folks to have these conversations face-to-face.

“This gives you the opportunity to offer an alternative solution and prevents any emotions or words from being misinterpreted, which happens all too frequently overwritten email message,” she says.

3. Show Them That List of Priorities

Remember that list Peebles recommended employees keep?

Break that out when someone approaches you with a new task. If you’ve hit capacity and just can’t take on something else, remind them of the tasks they’ve already delegated to you. Sometimes managers simply forget.

If it’s a really important task, you could ask where it’d fit into your list. Should you prioritize it over another project?

4. Thank Them

Michele Mavi is the director of recruiting at Atrium Staffing. When you need to say no at work she says one important thing is to show appreciation.
Portrait of Michele Mavi/Courtesy of Jose Element

Michele Mavi, the director of recruiting at Atrium Staffing, offers the perfect finishing touch: Show appreciation.

Thank that person for thinking of you and for bringing it to your table. But if your table is too crowded, Mavi suggests saying something like:

“Thanks so much for offering this project to me. It’s definitely something I’d love to do, but I have real concerns about being able to get it in by the deadline while still turning in a quality product…”

Above all else, remember that saying no — and saying no tactfully — shows maturity. It shows you know yourself, you know your time and you know what’s best for your company. If your cohort respects you, there should be no real issue.

Carson Kohler (@CarsonKohler) is a junior writer at The Penny Hoarder. Although she still has a hard time turning people down, she makes an effort to think before she says yes. Because just saying no can save her a lot of extra stress.