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Team Culture

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?

 

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 http://www.RealLifeE.com.

Comments (69)
  • ajpaschka

    Great and accurate article. I’ll be sure to be using some of these. Very helpful to non-profit staff management!

  • Evgenia Grinblo

    Wonderful, brilliant, and great! Thanks so much. I definitely take on more than I should and these are going to help me more than you think. 

  • Craig Duerden

    Thanks for the great article very helpful, definitely need to remember a few of these phrases for the future. Worked too many late nights as the result of becoming a yes man 🙂

  • Harrison Kariuki

    This is useful. I start practicing it now. Thanks

  • Judi

    Practicing these words is very powerful for people who have difficulty saying no. It must be boundary week, I just wrote a post on putting boundaries on time and money issues in our businesses. Thanks. I am tweeting this out.

  • Lori Finnigan

    Awesome post. Love the practice phrases to get used to saying “no”.  It’s hard to disappoint someone, especially when I know they really need help.

    I’m never great at on-the-spot answers so maybe I need a phrase to postpone my response then use one of your suggestions to give the final answer.

    And I can’t believe I just figured out one of my issues.  Oh happy day!

    Thank you!!

  • cvo

    wow.  I have those negative consequences.  My problem is telling my boss no.  She has lots of things on her mind she wants done.  I know the devil is in the details, but I don’t like the devil!  

    Is the dynamic of saying No the same with your boss as it is with those who have no supervisory relationship with you?

  • Guest

    This fits me too a Tee.  I am often the go-to.  Problems I have saying no to are : An exciting project that I want to be a part of, having everyone else is the office being able saying no, making me feel like I will let the company down if no one else does the task and most terribly not having faith in co-workers to execute the task to a level that it should be.

    This was a good post, but I really feel awful about myself now for saying yes all the time.

  • venece

    Saying no certainly reduces stress, so I’ve learned. You just can’t be everything to everyone, all the time and I’m learning to not feel bad about it or worry about what others may think.
    Great article! 🙂

  • Kristin Eide

    Definitely needed this today. Thanks 🙂 

  • Таня

    That is the problem I am struggling every day. My friends think that if I am sitting home with a baby I have time for all their problems. They never beileve I am busy and get offended when I reject to help them and listen to them. But I am really busy and their call interapt my creative efforts in blogging and writing. I can not say no sometimes and then I get very angry to my friends for stealing my time from me.

  • dissertations

    It’s really actual today!

  • Joy

    Really great article. It’s hard for me to think of answers on the spot so I tend to sound rude when I decline to help with things that tend to arrive at my doorstep when I am at my limit. Great stuff.

  • pleasuremechanics

    Funny, this topic comes up a lot in teaching adult sex education as well. . . what we learn in the boardroom may help in the bedroom, and vice versa! The template responses are wonderful – they should come pre-installed with every email software! Thanks!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad you enjoyed it!

    Especially when you’re working for a cause that’s your passion, it can be easy to feel obligated to say, “Yes.” But doing more of the most important things will best advance your overall goals.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    So glad they’ll be helpful! Sometimes we just need to know what to say 🙂

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    My pleasure! Please keep me updated on your success with getting more sleep and feeling more peaceful.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Yes! Boundaries are so important and definitely must be practiced to be maintained.

    Thanks for also supporting people in investing in the best.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    This phrase can work well for “buying time” to think:

    “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.” 

  • Madhu

    pure gold, this!

  • Osayi

    It can be challenging to say no, because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but if they were our true friends anyway, saying no to them would not change the friendship. 

    When we get to the place where we can be satisfied with giving our best, realizing that our best is enough –  it’s all we have, and if others are not okay with it, that is their problem – then we can truly thrive!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent question Chinwuba-

    Here’s what I found works best when clients need to set boundaries with their bosses:

    -Make a list of all of your current project responsibilities, including deadlines and estimates of how many hours they will take to complete.

    -Calculate how many “free” hours you have per week to spend on these projects between now and the deadline. (That means you subtract your meeting time and other routine activities from the total amount you have to spend on projects.)

    -Compare your responsibilities to your free hours.

    -If you see that you have more to do than will fit in the hours, ask your boss if you can sit down with her and show her what you currently have assigned. Then ask what she would like you to take off of your to do list to fit in her new requests.

    There are a few bosses who won’t be open to this type of discussion. But in general, I find that when people present the facts in this way, their bosses are willing to take things off their to do list or show them where they want them to spend less time.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Please don’t feel awful! As to your scenarios:

    -It’s OK to say Yes! to projects you want to be part of as long as you have time to complete them.

    -Could you ask your boss about having someone else take on responsibility for key projects?

    -Sometimes it’s better to have something done less than perfectly by someone else than taking it on yourself–that’s the only way that they can improve and you can focus on what’s most important.

    All the best,
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders
    http://www.ScheduleMakeover.com

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Awesome! It sounds like you’re already good at setting boundaries, but this will also help you to keep up rapport in the process 🙂

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Montiovayo

    Definitely one of the best articles I’ve read, hits home.

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