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Big Ideas

Setting Boundaries & Saying No… Nicely

Do you have trouble saying NO? A few simple strategies for protecting your priorities and avoiding over-commitment at work.

It feels good to be the go-to guy or girl: the one that everyone comes to for solutions to their problems. When people smile at you and tell you, “Thank you so much. I just don’t know what I would do without you,” feelings of importance, value, and worth well up inside of you. The immediate verbal affirmation you receive from saying, “Yes,” to every request can even fulfill subconscious aspirations of being popular: I could never be class president, but I can fix every technical challenge people bring to me. At last, I’m a VIP!

But the problem I frequently see with my time coaching clients is that their default response of, “Sure, I’ll get that to you by tomorrow,” leads to long-term negative consequences for themselves and others, such as:•    Handling small requests but putting off important projects

  • Turning in late or low-quality work
  • Doing other people’s work for them instead of properly delegating
  • Working extra hours so they can’t move forward on personal goals
  • Sacrificing sleep, exercise, and time with people they enjoy
  • Developing a reputation for being approachable but not reliable
  • Having people nag them about when they will get things done
  • Feeling overwhelmed, inadequate, guilty, frustrated, and resentful

Don’t misunderstand me: Doing your job well, having a willingness to serve, and acting like a team player are all awesome qualities. I’m not advocating slacking or never taking on extra assignments. But when you allow every request to divert your attention from your most important activities of the day, everyone ends up frustrated.

Fortunately, the solution to this huge challenge often involves a relatively small change in behavior: Thinking through and practicing how to say, “No,” or, “Not now,” nicely.

When you allow every request to divert your attention from your most important activities of the day, everyone ends up frustrated.

As a starting point, I’ve listed out some examples of quick, respectful responses you can use in situations where it’s common to overcommit. Try saying a few of these out loud (preferably by yourself) and tweak them until the phrasing suits your personality and work culture. It may seem a bit strange or “fake” at first to rehearse. But if you’ve developed a life-long habit of always answering affirmatively, it’s necessary to retrain yourself so that you don’t default to your typical pattern.Here you go:

When you receive perpetual last-minute requests:

I would love to help you out, but I already made commitments to other _________ (coworkers, clients, etc.) to complete their projects today. It wouldn’t be fair to them to not follow through on what I said I would do. I will be sure to fit this in as soon as possible. Thanks for your understanding.

When people ask you about everything instead of directly contacting the appropriate person:

That’s not my area of expertise, but I would be happy to connect you with someone who could best help you solve this problem.

When you’re asked in the hallway or at a meeting for an estimated timeframe for a complex project:

Could you email me the details of that request? Once I receive them, I’ll be able to give you a more definite response on when I can get that done for you.

When you’re given an exceptionally short deadline:

I know this project is a high priority for you, and if it’s absolutely necessary for me to turn something in by that date, I can make it happen. But if I could have a few more _________ (days, weeks, etc.), I could really deliver something of higher quality. Would it be possible for me to have a bit more time?

When someone starts talking about a problem that you could potentially help them with but you don’t have time to handle and is not your responsibility:

Wow. I can really understand how that would be hard. (Then say nothing more—just nod, smile, and release the problem when you walk away.)

When asked to do something optional that you can’t commit to right now:

I appreciate you thinking of me, and I’m honored by the request. But unfortunately, I don’t have the time to give this my best right now. I think you would benefit from finding someone who can devote more time and energy to this project.

When someone asks you to do something that your much-less-busy coworker could do:

I would love to help you out, but given my schedule, I wouldn’t be able to get this back to you for a couple of weeks. If you would like to have this turned around sooner, I recommend that you reach out to __________. Does that sound good?

At first, you’ll need to consciously think about using these new phrases. But in time, these type of responses will quite naturally flow out of your mouth in conversation or through your fingers in an email response.

Also, if you’ve developed a reputation for always jumping to meet everyone’s requests, you may have a few people who don’t like your new approach. But by consistently practicing better responses, you’ll end up making more people happy – including yourself.

Over to You…

Do you struggle with taking on more than you can handle?How have you learned to avoid over-commitment?


More Posts by Elizabeth Grace Saunders

Elizabeth Grace Saunders is the founder of Real Life E Time Coaching & Training and author of The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment: How to Achieve More Success With Less Stress and How to Invest Your Time Like Money. Find out how you can accomplish more with peace and confidence at

Comments (69)
  • Peter

    This is a beautiful read and has some valuable points to consider! Interestingly, the same applies outside the professional environment and many are plagued by “savior to all” syndrome. This has been helpful and given me some good tips on dealing with being too eager to please!

  • Xinrui Liu

    Well, how to say no when you’ve finished your project but your client still demand you to do more!

  • Haseeb Qureshi, Esq.

    A colleague of mine (web developer) is known for doubling his going rate after leaving the project scope. Send a letter informing your client as to the new cost of work.

  • Umyr

    Ask your client for the double payment 😀

  • Andreas Moser

    The simple word “no” is the best time management tool of all times.
    My 5 proven tricks that make it easier to say “no”:

  • Andreas Moser

    Tell them that you are now booked out for the next 4 months and that you are happy to schedule it for after that. => They will find somebody else.

  • Tessa Ashford

    How do you tell your clients politely that you may run 5 minutes late for a phone call? I do back to back appointments and I want to be sure that they don’t think I have forgotten about them, but that I am likely finishing up another call. I want them to know I respect their time as well.

    • HDMiller

      Set calls for 45 minutes instead of 60. I’m not sure why everyone in the business world feels the need to use every last second of a call or a meeting, but they do. Set the expectation up front, so that even if you run a little over, everyone will have a few minutes for a potty break and/or to get to their next meeting or call.

  • smita

    very helpful 🙂

  • vikranth

    really….it’s awesome

  • Kat @

    Amazing. I need to bookmark this so I can refer to it

  • Mike

    I also have a problem.I have a roommate now since he is with me all the time after office so he knows most of the thing and we have a common group of friends.Now the point is mostly I deny for their weekend parties request by saying I am going to office but every time I am not able to do so.Talking to him is of no use.He got upset with that.What shall I do?

  • Justine Curtis

    Brilliant, and I love the example responses you’ve given. Thanks Elizabeth

  • Kristen Feneley

    Brilliant, indeed! I have already bookmarked and copied some to a doc so I can practice often. Thank you!

  • george hume

    How is it fair to divert a request for assistance to another coworker? I’ve had this done to me, and consider the person diverting a request to me as a putz!! It’s very much like the old childhood game of hot potato!

  • Jason Ramynke

    I like the examples you give in your article. I also recommend being honest with people who are asking for things, and explain why you are going to say “No.” Something that I focus on is making sure that people making decisions really understand their priorities so they know they are saying “No” to the right thing.

  • justsayno

    Important to always remember that it is ok to say NO. We are pulled in so many directions, not just professional life, I think many start to think that it is bad to say NO. It is absolutely necessary and every successful person would agree. Great article.

  • Lori English

    First of all love your article. The examples are great and realistic. You make it easy to be firm and stick to it. Thanks Again, Lori.

  • Pijush Mondal

    Just say, “I’m sorry. I can’t do this right now.” Use a sympathetic, but firm tone. If pressured as to why, reply that it doesn’t fit with your schedule, and change the subject. Most reasonable people will accept this as an answer, so if someone keeps pressuring you, they’re being rude, and it’s OK to just repeat, “I’m sorry, but this just doesn’t fit with my schedule,” and change the subject, or even walk away if you have to.

  • Adam Thomas

    Yep – Adding these to the toolbox today :-).

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