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Career Advice: It’s Time to Learn to Say No

Hey! I know you’re slammed but I was wondering if you could help me out with something?”

“Would you mind taking a look at this PowerPoint? I’d try to fix it up myself but you have such a great eye for design!”

“Do you have room for another project? I always know I can count on you to step up!”

Sound familiar? 

Feeling needed in your job can be incredibly rewarding. Being approached for help means your co-workers recognize your talent and trust your skills. Plus, who wouldn’t want a reputation as a “go-to” member of the team, particularly early in your career? 

But agreeing to every request that comes your way can quickly get out of hand, leaving you burned out and struggling to do the job you were actually hired to do. That’s why I’m here to hand you your very own 80’s-style pantsuit and invite you to embrace your inner Nancy Reagan. That’s right: it’s time to “just say no.” Because believe it or not, learning to turn coworkers down is one of the best skills you can hone — not just for yourself, but for your company, too. 

Three reasons to start putting your foot down
Woman sitting at desk with laptop and coffee looking bored
Photo by Magnet Me from Unsplash

1. You’ll earn respect

Whether you’re new to a job or simply trying to work your way up in a company, it’s natural to assume that the quickest way to earn the respect and good will of your colleagues and superiors is to be, above all else, helpful. With that approach, it won’t be long before you find yourself saying “yes” before an ask is even out of someone’s mouth. 

Will you help with something that’s outside of your job description? Of course! Will you stack another project on top of your already teetering pile of work? No problem! 

Paying your dues and being a “go-to” member of the team has its merits, but only to a point. If you want your people to see you as a colleague rather than an assistant, you’ll do well to assert your needs and remind them that you’re a full member of the team with your own responsibilities, deadlines and priorities. 

Remember that saying no is a skill, and that it’s one that employers expect you to have. For Cydney Rhines, Georgia State University ‘18, a digital content creator, being able to say no was a prerequisite for getting her job! “Saying no was something that actually came up in my interview,” she remembers. “I was asked how I would manage the constant requests.” 

Sarah Juckniess, a senior marketing director at a non-profit, knows that it’s not a personal rejection when a colleague tells her no. “I want my staff to know their limits and prioritize their core projects, so I’m happy when I hear them push back,” she says. 

2. You’ll have time for your *actual* job

When nearly everyone in the office is more senior than you, it can almost feel like it’s your job to pick up the slack and do whatever is asked of you. But it won’t be long before doing so starts to interfere with your actual responsibilities.

One myth we’ve all convinced ourselves of at one time or another is that we can say “yes” indefinitely. But the truth is that every “yes” we say to one thing is also a “no” to something else. There are only so many hours in the day, and only so much you can get done. If you’re continuously taking on additional projects that are outside of the scope of your actual responsibilities — or simply drop your priorities to help others with their projects — you’ll be left stretched too thin to do the work you were actually hired to do. 

“Most of the people I work with are also writers, and while we help each other out, saying no is critical to getting our jobs done. Once I set aside time to do my writing, it lifts a huge weight off my shoulders, and sometimes it leaves me time to help others too!” says Fairley Lloyd, University of North Carolina, Wilmington ‘20, a technical writer. 

3. You’ll avoid burnout

If you’ve come down with a chronic case of the yesses, you’re probably also the type of person who will get the job done, no matter what. But if you find yourself working long hours or scrambling to hit deadlines, it’s time to recognize that you’re fighting an uphill battle against burnout — and that burnout usually wins. 

“I remind myself that I can’t help others if I haven’t helped myself first. That actually makes me less likely to take on extra work, because if I’m burned out from taking on too much I know I’ll be no help to anyone, least of all myself, ” Fairley explains. “I ask myself how I would treat a colleague who was too busy and give myself that same kind of respect.” 

Taking on more than you can carry isn’t just hard, it’s unsustainable. “Long-term, constantly sidelining your own work to handle others’ requests is a fast route to burnout,” says Sarah. By taking control of your time and being respectful of your own bandwidth, you’ll achieve more in the long term. Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint!

“[Saying yes too much was] a mistake I made in a previous position that caused so much stress and anxiety,” recalls Cydney. “We have to be realistic in the workplace and remember that you need yourself before 9 and after 5.”

friends at a coffee shop
Photo by Brooke Cagle from Unsplash

How to ease into saying “no”

Turning people down doesn’t come naturally to most of us. After all, we all want to make a great impression and be the kind of reliable team member everyone loves to work with. But here’s the good news: you can still be those things without sacrificing your sanity.

Next time you need to say no, try one of these strategies: 

  • Remind yourself that it’s not personal. However much you may love the people you work with, your relationships during work hours should be professional first. Don’t feel that you need to do favors for people you’re friendly with at the expense of your own responsibilities. If they’re your friends, they’ll understand!

  • Offer advice rather than doing the task itself. Point the requester to someone else who is better suited to help, or share a resource that might help them get the job done. 

  • Suggest an alternative timeline. Often, out-of-scope tasks are extra stressful because they’re also last-minute. If you simply don’t have the bandwidth to help at the moment, let them know when you’ll be able to help in the future (“The next two weeks are packed, but I have some room at the end of the month!”), or give them an estimate of how much notice you’ll need next time in order to get the job done (“I generally need to know a week in advance if you need a presentation deck built.”) so you can avoid having to turn them down again in the future. 

If you’re feeling stressed about saying no, remember that the more you do it, the easier it will be. “I think it’s important to practice this often so that it becomes a habit in spite of second guessing,” Cydney advises. 

Ready to take control of your work life? Now you have the magic word. Use it well!

Zoë Randolph

UC Berkeley '15

Since graduating, Zoë's served as a content marketer for non-profits and tech startups. She worked remotely and traveled the world full-time with her fiancé before becoming a freelance writer and settling (at least for now) in Montréal, Quebec. She likes reading good books, learning new things, and watching Real Housewives argue on TV. You can keep up with her writing over at zoerandolph.com.
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