You’ve got a busy day of work ahead of you and you’re only just going to hit that deadline – assuming nothing distracts you. But then your inbox pings with a meeting invite for a brainstorming session to help your colleague plan an upcoming project. A few minutes later, your manager approaches you to assign a new piece of work. A little while after that, someone else messages to ask if you can help them organise a leaving party for someone in the office. You need to say no to all of these. But how can you do it?
Obviously, you can’t say no to everything! You’re there to work and fulfil certain responsibilities. But what about when all the other little things crop up that aren’t meant to be your task? Or when your to-do list is full and you couldn’t do more even if you tried.
It's remarkably easy to lose track of your time and workload. Learning to say ‘no’ is a key skill in managing your day. However, many people find this a challenge, whether that’s because they find it awkward to turn people down, they genuinely want to help or they can’t get others to listen to their refusals.
This isn’t the first time we’ve discussed the difficulty in saying no. It can be harder than many people realise, so we’ve created this practical guide to help you take back control of your time.
1. Stand your ground
When someone asks you for something, you’re perfectly within your rights to refuse. Don’t always feel obliged to give a reason, this isn’t a debate. If you think it will help, you can explain how busy you already are by listing off your to-do list, but a simple “I can’t help you because I don’t have the time right now,” should also suffice.
However, we all know people that don’t like taking no for an answer. Stick to your guns and, if they’re being particularly stubborn, you need to be too. Keep repeating your answer over and over until they listen. Often, using the exact same phrase will help them see you really aren’t going to budge:
“I’d love to help you with that, but I have to finish these reports by the end of the day.”
“Yes, and I have to finish these reports by the end of the day.”
“I’m sorry, and I have to finish these reports by the end of the day.”
At some point, they should start to realise that you can’t help because you have reports to write by the end of the day.
2. Set expectations
Time management isn’t just about not taking on extra work. Limiting interruptions in the first place will help you stay in control. Half the battle is setting clear rules for when you’re interruptible, and making sure people know them.
When someone asks if you have some time – whether for a meeting or just a chat – tell them frankly either “no” or “not long.” If you do have to speak to them, give them a clear and specific time limit upfront. Telling them you can only spare a specific amount of time, such as two, or five or ten minutes, will focus their mind and make them get to the point quicker.
Similarly, you may want to set some guidelines for which requests you’ll even consider. A good rule is to say no to any half-formed ideas. Often, someone will ask you for something but they’re still figuring it out as they’re talking to you. This creates the issue that you don’t know exactly what you’d be agreeing to. You might think you’re signing up for a quick and easy task, but it turns into something much larger. To avoid this, tell them that you’ll only listen to their requests if they’re more prepared and know exactly what they want.
3. Public time management
The easiest way to refuse a request is to avoid being asked in the first place. So, it can be very useful to find some way to signal when you’re busy. Most organisations use digital calendars, such as in Outlook, so that colleagues can see what others have booked in. Therefore, if you block out focused working time, as well as your meetings, it’s easy for people to find this out without disturbing you.
Similarly, turning on your ‘Do not disturb’ status on systems such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, are quick and easy signs that you don’t want to be interrupted right now. Depending on where you work, you may also want to use a physical signal. Whether that’s an actual sign on your desk, or something like letting people know that when you’re wearing headphones you’re focusing and don’t want to be disturbed.
For these methods to be effective, it’s important you’re strict with the rules you set. If someone does try interrupting while you’ve got the signal up, let them know that you aren’t going to respond. If people see they’re breakable rules, they’ll start breaking them. It’s also important not to abuse the process for signalling your availability. If you’re always on ‘do not disturb’ others will interrupt you anyway as it will become meaningless.
4. Only take on what you can handle
Sometimes the issue isn’t time as much as capacity. You can only juggle so many things at once before something has to give. If you say yes to every request, you’ll end up swamped in a to-do list longer than you can handle. This takes up a lot of energy and stops you focusing on your own priorities.
Instead, be selective about what you agree to take on. Only accept tasks that you really have time to do well, and then try to give some of your other tasks to capable people to free yourself up. Also, when you do agree to help someone, don’t take full ownership of it. Always pass it back once your part is done.
5. Be assertive with your manager
Your colleagues don’t have any authority over you, which makes it relatively easy to be assertive and manage your relationships with them. You can say how you feel and think without causing an issue for yourself – as long as you always remain polite! This means it’s quite easy to refuse their requests if you’re too busy.
But what happens if it’s your manager that’s making too many requests? What if they’re giving you too much work or it’s their disorganisation that’s affecting you? It’s much different saying no to them because it could potentially jeopardise your career. But you do need to learn how to stand up for yourself in these situations.
Make your manager part of the decision-making process. Ask them, “Which of these tasks do you think I should do?” With this question, explain that you’ll only be able to complete one of the tasks in front of you. It also means you’ve freed yourself of the responsibility of having to decide what to refuse, as your manager should know which option best aligns with the organisation’s priorities.
With these techniques, you can actively manage and control your time and workload. Refusing requests will often be necessary to get everything completed. By learning to stand up for yourself, set boundaries and be assertive, you won’t become overburdened and can work at your best.
For more practical tips for improving your Personal Effectiveness, have a look at our Learning Solutions.