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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)
  • Bruce Benson

    I once decided to get better at answering all my e-mail, quickly.  Instead of often ignoring e-mail that was not relevant to what I was doing, I would always respond and always try to point people in the right direction.  What happened?  The amount of irrelevant e-mail went way up!  One person admitted that they knew the question was not in my expertise, but because she knew I would always respond, she took to regularly asking me first ….

    Saying “no” sometimes means just ignoring requests – as rude as that sounds. 

  • Roxy Chaney

    Thank you for this. I recently had to scale back my involvement in a project that I’m very passionate about but didn’t have the bandwidth required to fulfill all the project goals myself. Another member of our team was recruited to assist and, in the end, I think the project goals will be met and exceeded due to the resulting collaboration!

  • Thomas

    Great article with some really good hands-on advice.

    One reply that I’ve used a couple of times when people show up uninvited to your desk and start talking/asking for help is “That is really interesting and it seems very important. However, right now I am in the middle of XYZ and I am afraid that I can’t give you the time and attention that you/your problem deserves. Can we talk about it later?”Another thing that I used a bit at my previous job was to simply ask the good ol’  “How important is it? How urgent is it?”. Many times the person, often a sales rep, admitted that his request wasn’t really that important, nor urgent and that bought me time or that the sales rep asked someone else.It makes it a little bit easier to say no when you remind yourself that saying “yes” to something means saying “no” to something else…

  • Thomas

    I see that one of “my” replies already is mentioned in the article…

    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.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Very true! I also find that people tend to respect you most when you set good boundaries and can be relied on to follow through when you do say, Yes!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders


    Way to go on knowing your limits and setting proper boundaries.

    Everyone wins when we don’t over commit!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Beth Thompson

    Your email came at a timely moment. However, I didn’t see one that would quite work for my situation yesterday. When I first wake up in the morning, I spend about 40 minutes waking up, journaling, praying, and meditating. I have a close friend who lives down the street from me who has been helping me around the house and with my new puppy. She called shortly after I got up yesterday, and all I had was 40 minutes before work. #1 mistake was that I answered the phone. Then, she was out of coffee, can I come over for a cup? I said yes. Then, when she came over, she talked about all sorts of things and wanted to look at the original file of an image I did for her. Finally, she asked me to pick up some paint for her at work.  And I wasn’t ok with any of it (except maybe the paint, which could’ve taken only 5 minutes of  time had she been direct). Since she rarely calls at so early, I answered. But then I felt trapped into saying yes. I couldn’t figure out how to say no, even though I really needed to.  How do you nicely say no to a friend in need? Especially when I need them too?

  • Jessica

    I always have a hard time saying no. I am a design student and I AM learning, but I am also pretty good for my age. I also have artistic hobbies like photography, writing, or just being able to make things from scratch with the supplies I have. Well, My friends and family always come to me because I am the “creative”. They will be doing something and if I am around they will say, “what should I say/do/etc. You’re the creative one you should know.” Also, they try to rely on me to take pictures of everyone, edit them, and hand them out. I am not a professional photographer by any means, but unless *I* am the one that had the idea to take the pictures, it just seems like a hassle. And they are just wanting good photos without having to go pay for them. It’s hard to say no to family especially.

    Thanks for the article though. I will be trying these out and maybe adding in a few of my own. In the end *I* am the one that has to say no before they will stop.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Glad to hear you’re successfully putting these techniques into practice!

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Hi Beth-

    Great question. When you know that you don’t have time to give someone your best, let the call go to voicemail.

    If it’s important, they’ll leave a message. Then you can listen to the message and choose whether or not to call back right away: “I just missed your call” or to wait until later in the day when you have more time to call and say: “I was getting ready for work when you called but I wanted to be sure to get back to you about your needs…”

    That way you can have a happy morning, get the paint and still feel like a good friend.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Charlie Redmond

    Definitely something good to keep in mind early on.

    I’ve found that it’s worth it to help people out with the small requests if there are some great residual side effects — like you getting better at skills from repeated practice — but at some point you’ll be able to tell when it’s time to just say “sorry, I just can’t.”

    If you can make the most out of it now, you’ll win in the long-run.

  • Mark

    At my last full-time position, i was the got-too for everything video related… i would constantly get suckered into doing more and more because the staff was small, about 4 people, and because the boss fet that i needed more to do than editing/fixing/producing videos for the website, structuring DVDs, managing projects and freelancers that were working on ongoing projects offsite, writing daily reports, and trying to get the (then) Talent Manger to book talent in a timely way so we wouldn’t have gaps in the schedule or have to push things back.  After a while, I tried to refuse the work, but then he told me it was essential for my job’s continuation.  the last thing he did: he told me to learn computer scripting (something i had no prior knowledge of) for a project involving iPhone and iPad compressions, and then laid me off a week later, right when I learned enough to use a certain program.  It was actually a relief; i worked at this job 8-12 hours per day with no lunch, because that was part of the “company culture.” 

    …Makes me glad to be a freelancer now. 

  • Carmela_sorrera

    I feel same way with others saying NO because for me this is my way of extending my knowledge and sharing this to others.I worked so hard and full passion which sometimes others take advantage. I learned enough to be manageable on my priorities but there still situations I can’t able to practice it. Sometimes doing other good things is become abusive with someone until such you find you self nonethless.

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Great insight Charlie!

    Also another way to guard your time Jessica is to reply in this way:

    “Thank you for thinking of me. I am starting to build my creative consulting business, which includes photography services. Would you like me to come up with a project estimate, and if it sounds reasonable to you, we can talk about the details of moving forward?”

    That way, if they do want to pay you for your time, they have the opportunity to do so. If they are only looking for volunteer help, they can find someone else with a bit more time on their hands.

    All the best,

  • Lori Nevin

    I can’t always agree the answer is to say no. Saying yes is always an option. Its a matter of how to scope out the work and fit it with your other priorities. An executive that I reported to famously came to me with new priorities. This all the time occurance led me to create an overview that gave him a view of all the projects I was leading or had a role in, their proposed completion dates, and the priority that he had given them. I could expand the overview to show the milestones, and then expand again to show the WBS. If he wanted me to take on another project or even small task, they he could determine the piority given the other work I was involved in. Sometimes he came to the conclusion that someone else could do the work, or that it really didn’t need to be done right away, or at all.

  • Elizabeth Cormack

    My main problem is that I’m selfish when it comes to exciting projects – I say yes not because I’m a pushover (quite the opposite) or because I necessarily feel bad turning people down. I say yes because as soon as the project is out there, I want to have a hand in it, and I’d hate for it to be done by someone else just because I couldn’t fit it into my schedule. If something can physically be done, I usually promise to do it in less time than is reasonable for my capacity, but that’s only because I care equally about the project and want results just as fast as they do. How can I remind myself that I’ll regret those decisions later? How can I remind myself of the importance of down time, sleep and leisure when I’m caught up in the excitement of a new proposition?

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Excellent Lori!

    You are absolutely right that saying, “No,” is not always the right answer. If the request is to do something that is truly a higher priority than what you’re currently working on, the answer should be, “Yes,” to the new but then (as you so eloquently described) to correspondingly say, “No,” or “later” to something that’s currently  on your to do list.

    Way to go on setting priorities and expectations!

    To your brilliance!

  • Elizabeth Saunders

    Hi Elizabeth (excellent name by the way 🙂

    Fantastic question.

    Here’s the situation: You are allowing your emotional drive for excitement, control, adrenaline, and accomplishment to run over your mental, emotional and physical needs.

    Basically one part of you is telling the other parts of you, suck it up and move out of the way, I’m going to do what I want and I don’t care what it costs you.

    The way to help to restore balance is to take time to write down what the other “parts of you” need to be well cared for and healthy and what the negative consequences are when you neglect them.

    Then when you’re tempted to allow your emotions to override all other needs, look back at the consequences and choose to honor the other parts of yourself.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth Grace Saunders

  • Louise Robinson

    Wise words.  I think there are few that can honestly say they DON’T have trouble sayinjg No although I have been working on it and am getting better.  Great ideas how to do that here too. Thanks.

  • Danhopper

    If all else fails just HIDE…. i have got quite good at going to the printer or water machine just as senior management are circling my desk!

  • ElliottFryback

    This is great stuff and my reading it came at the perfect time. My girlfriend is a clinical social and because she is young and smart so she gets bombarded with task out side of the reach of an aging physiology community. She had to edit a video that would be shown nationally for a practice in which many of her professional references worked. She was extremely under paid and skilled as a professional editor. Professionals in the community that had seen her work said they would have quoted $20,000 for the project and I still couldn’t get her to buck up and say something. Then the other day I was reading this blog when she called me stressed and I read of this handy script. Little energy spent, she got out of the job, kept her professional references.
     Knowing how to defend your self worth, good stuff.

  • Kanon Kulpa

    NO! Hey I’m feeling better already.

  • Sharonmichelem

    I have a hard time saying “no”, if it doesn’t get done our customers don’t get what they want or need. The more I do things, the less my co-workers do. They’ve become lazy, only interested in a paycheck and they do not care if the customers get what they ask for. I am burning out, I am tired of being twice everyone else’s age and I do the majority of the work. My co-workers would rather stand around talking about video games or playing drama queen for a day. If I am saying no to them, I am saying no to a customer.

  • Umyr_wd

    Lol. I like this article actually, it really gets hard sometime to say the sweet word NO I have already tried the short deadline one 🙂 anyways nice article

  • Steinrock83

    I think as creatives we are so willing to show off our abilities and make things that people like. It is hard to say no also when you are really motivated by challenges.

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