How to Say No in Professional Settings (And Stop Overcommitting)

If you’re like me, you have trouble saying no to people, especially in your professional endeavors. We all have career goals we’re working towards or achievements that we strive for, so naturally we don’t want to turn down professional opportunities that are presented to us. Plus, we don’t want to let anyone down. But sometimes, this can be our greatest downfall. 

This desire to succeed, excel, and please everyone can lead us to overcommit and overwhelm ourselves. I know it’s happened to me way too many times. I have a free minute in between all my tasks at work and suddenly my colleagues are asking for my help. One deadline seems far off into the future, so I take on more projects. 

I overestimate my abilities and I underestimate the time it will take me to complete certain projects. Sure, part of removing or reducing the stress and overwhelm I put on myself is knowing my limits and knowing how to space things out. But the other part is realizing that I can’t do everything. Sometimes, I just have to say that one dreaded word: no.

So how do you say no to taking on more work without coming off as lazy or just plain unhelpful? It’s tricky, but if you do it right, you’ll keep from getting overwhelmed while also earning the respect of your supervisor, colleagues, and clients.

Be polite but straightforward 

The reason you’re saying no to something or someone at work is probably because you’ve got too much on your plate already. So what do you do when your boss approaches you asking if you can attend another meeting that wasn’t already on your schedule or tries to add something else to your task list?

Say something along the lines of “thank you for thinking of me for this project, but I was planning on spending this time working on project x,y,z…” This will show that you’re grateful for the opportunities being presented to you, but also that you have your priorities straight and aren’t turning down this new task to just sit at your desk and do nothing. If you name off some of the other tasks on your to-do list, you won’t come off as lazy, either. 

Offer an alternative

Try to help without actually saying yes to the task at hand. This doesn’t mean you throw other colleagues under the bus by saying, “Mary doesn’t have much to do, so why don’t you ask her.” Mary will then be angry with you and whoever just asked you for help will be even more annoyed when Mary says no. So unless you know for a fact that another coworker can and will help with the task, don’t mention names.

Instead, ask if you can contribute in a smaller way or if you can take care of the task at a later date when your availability frees up a bit. Or, you can offer to help them find someone else. Instead of tossing out names, you can contact other colleagues yourself and say something like, “I was asked to help with this task, but I think you would be a better fit for it. Do you think you would have time to help?” It compliments your colleagues while also respecting their right to say no if they are too bogged down with their own workload.

Do it in person

Even if someone emailed or texted you asking for your help, don’t simply respond to the email . Go find them in person. The fact that you put in the effort to speak to them about it face-to-face will show that you aren’t saying no because you are lazy. It will show your appreciation that they asked and will also get across the fact that you’d like to help but are simply unable at this time. It will make your reasons for saying no sound more sincere and you will have less to feel guilty about in the future. 

Avoid a long-winded response

There’s nothing wrong with keeping your explanation short and sweet. If you include too many details and talk for much too long, it may look like you’re making up excuses. It will also be more clear that you feel guilty about saying no, so the person asking for your help will be more likely to pressure you further because they think you’ll give in easily. 

To avoid being pressured into something or having your current task list moved around, keep your saying no speech short, simple, and firm. Don’t even hint at the fact that yes could be an option. 

If you take these tips into account, saying no in professional settings will become much easier, and you’ll do better work when you’re not stressed out and rushing around. This will ultimately earn you the respect and admiration of supervisors and colleagues when they see that you’re confident about the projects on your to-do list. Saying no might feel strange at first, but the more you do it, the easier it gets!