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Getting Things Done

How to Say “No” and Reclaim Your Career

NOTE FROM EDITOR: We are excited to announce the launch of our brand new training course, Getting Things Done®. In the month of August, we will highlight the skills and principles from Getting Things Done in our author Q&A article. Enjoy!

This article was originally published in August of 2017.

Dear Emily,

How do you say “no” to requests and projects that come across your desk? I want to be helpful and do everything that’s asked of me, but if I said “yes” to every request I received, I wouldn’t actually get to my top priorities and that would reflect poorly on my performance. How do I balance urgent requests with long-standing responsibilities?

People Pleaser

Dear Pleaser,

I started my life as a people-pleaser. I had a strong sense of perfectionism and I wanted to be liked. Put the two together, and I would do just about anything to keep from letting someone down. I didn’t want to disappoint anyone, ever.

These motivations served me well in my career for many years. I developed a reputation as someone who could be counted on, someone who produced results. But then, several years into my career, I had an important realization. My career wasn’t mine any more. My career belonged to all the other people who made requests of me. I was doing what they wanted or needed me to do, what they asked of me, rather than doing what I wanted or needed to do.

So, I learned to say “no” and I learned to disappoint people. Because, if you never disappoint someone, it means you aren’t living your life, you are living the life other people want you to live. Getting Things Done® provides a framework for balancing all of the inputs in your life—those generated by others (requests they make of you) and those generated by you (things you want to do). Here are three ideas that have been helpful for me.

Survey all your options.
David Allen says it this way, “You can only feel good about what you are not doing if you know what you are not doing.” Capturing all your inputs, both those that come from others (i.e. requests people make of you) and those that come from yourself (i.e. ideas and thoughts you have) is the key to making sure you know what you are not doing. Until you have a clear picture of everything you could be doing, it is impossible to make a good choice about what you should be doing.

Think of it this way: if you are sitting at your desk and an urgent email request comes in from a coworker, your natural inclination will be to see it and evaluate its importance in a vacuum. Is it important? Yes, so I will do it right now. But, if you have captured (and subsequently organized) all of your inputs, you can look at that email coming in and say, “Why, yes, this is important but when I compare it to the other things on my list, it is not as important.”

Getting a clear, documented (i.e. written down) picture of all of your inputs is the first step in creating the space you need to choose what to do rather than simply react to what is in front of you. Just make sure you write everything down—including the projects and tasks most important to you. Your “to-do” list has to include all the things YOU want to do; not simply what OTHERS want you to do.

Make “no” a decision rather than a delay.
For most of us, there is simply no way to do everything everyone wants of us. We have to set boundaries and say “no” to some things. To minimize the impact on others of saying “no,” it is best to say “no” quickly and clearly.

  • Quickly: When a request comes in, it should take only a couple of minutes to read and evaluate. If you truly have a clear picture of all your choices, you can easily place this new request in the context of those choices and decide whether you can take it on or not. That decision can be made quickly. Don’t procrastinate saying “no.” Doing so increases the pressure on you to say “yes” and leaves the other person with less time to get the help he or she needs from other sources.
  • Clearly: Here I will borrow from Yoda: “Do or do not; there is no try.” With the best of intentions, I sometimes find myself saying to someone, “I have a lot on my plate right now but I will try to get this done for you.” This response helps no one. It puts pressure on me because I have made a commitment I know deep down I can’t keep. On other side, the person making the request hears this response as a “Yes, Emily will do this.” Think of saying “no” like ripping the Band-Aid off: there is far less pain if you do it quickly and clearly.

Understand the true impact of saying “yes.”
Most of the time, we consider only the impact of saying “no.” Keisha asks me for help. If I say “no” that will put her in a bind. This makes me feel bad and tempts me to say “yes.”

But what is the impact of saying “yes”? This might include:

  • Less time and energy for more important projects I want to focus on.
  • A missed opportunity for someone else on the team to develop and grow. When I say “yes” to something, it means someone else doesn’t get the chance to say “yes” to it. There might be others on the team or in the organization who could handle this work or who would like the opportunity to step up and take on this type of project.
  • Failure to keep commitments to others. I say “yes” to Keisha and the impact is I have to tell my daughter I won’t make it to her soccer game after all.

Saying “yes” to people is important. Helping, mentoring, and teaming are all hugely valuable uses of our time. The key is to make sure we make conscious choices about how to use (or not use) our time so we are controlling our choices not ceding those choices to others.

Best of luck in using your new skills,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Getting Things Done

7 thoughts on “How to Say “No” and Reclaim Your Career”

  1. Robert Talmadge

    I am a huge Emily Hoffman fan! This article was characteristically well thought-out and written. Not convinced, tough, the “all about me” approach is the best choice 24/7. I began to carefully consider the consequences of the “just say no” mindset when I observed the impact imitating my behavior was having on the kids. They are always watching, but often aren’t able to appreciate the finer nuances of prioritization. To them, decisions seemed to be based on favoritism. I came away wondering if receiving a “no” doesn’t feel the same way to everyone at some level. So I started trying to consciously focus on the content behind a “no” until I can discern if the interpersonal resultant is acceptable to the requestor. Love your work, Emily; keep helping us with insightful messages!

  2. Shannon GaNun

    I love this article, especially the quote by Yoda. I have come to detest when people say, “I’ll try.” I never let that be the final response from someone when I make a request. It’s so important to get a “yes” or a “no.” Learning to communicate clearly will benefit your professional and personal life greatly.

  3. Laura Gillenwater

    There are also things you can say that aren’t a hard “no,” but don’t trap you into a full “yes,” either. For example, I had to say no recently to creating deliverables for a particular project, because of some superseding priorities, but I *was* able to say, “No, I can’t create stuff for this project for you, but I can share with you some information and tools that will help you to do it yourself, and am happy to be available for you to come to, if/when you need some quick advice, etc., along the way, if you’d like.”

    When the request comes from my boss, then I don’t say “no,” I say “Well, I can’t get both x and y done by that deadline…which one would you rather I work on? Can one of those come after the other is done?” (This only works because my boss trusts me that I’m working to capacity, though.) If both things truly *have* to get done at the same time, then it’s time to discuss changing their scope or the quality level we’re aiming for, or paying for additional resources. (It’s the old “Fast, Cheap, Good – pick two” thing…)

  4. Robert Giegerich

    I worked with Jack Welch and he taught me to just say No upfront. The killer word in English is maybe. Interestingly maybe means no in Japanese. It should mean no in English too

    You have to take control of your destiny or someone else will was the title of one of Jack’s books. When you become important, everyone wants you but there are only 24 hours in your day too

    Napoleon could not lead every charge but he could direct the army. Delegating and standing firm sre the keys. No has to mean no. If you waver once people believe you will do it again. When Jack said no, none of us thought he meant maybe.

  5. Kevin

    Emily, you end this article saying “best of luck using your new skill”

    Saying “no” isn’t a skill, or something you’ve provided. You haven’t accomplished something with your article. You simply provided an example that people can ponder. Always saying Yes is a problem. Saying no is a responsibility.

    Don’t expect a raise!


  6. Another People Pleaser

    Love this article, but want to hear HOW. Coming from a people pleaser myself, I need a few “go to” sayings I can feel confident in utilizing to push back on until I find my own confidence and words. Help with the how? Thanks so much for a relevant article.

  7. Chris Byers

    Great content! This is exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Thanks for your help 🙂

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