Time Management: Gracefully Refusing Requests

What do you do when you have the perfect plan set up for the day, then everything and everyone tries to blow up your plan?

Part of that could be your fault. Perhaps you’re responding to e-mails as they’re coming in or otherwise wasting time. But the other part is no fault of your own. You need to learn some language, verbiage, and techniques to use when someone asks you to do something not on your plan. If you’re thinking, “This is just not that important right now,” you need to know how to decline gracefully. Certainly there are some things that are worth stopping what we’re doing and handling; however, there lots of things that aren’t important and don’t qualify to be handled immediately.

One of the things you can do is always negotiate a due date with the person as they make a request. I’ve have some people tell me, “I’m an administrative assistant I can’t possibly negotiate or say no.” You don’t have to use the word “no,” but you have to get creative in how you respond. For example, when someone comes in and asks you to do something, when you assume that they need it? You might assume people need their requests handled now, but do they always need it handled immediately? Of course not. It’s your job to find out.

Asking a simple question such as, “Do you need that now, or would Monday be okay?” is perfectly fine. But if you don’t ask, if you don’t take that quick second to check in with a person, you don’t really know what the priority is, so you do it right away. It’s your job to query and negotiate the deadline.

Another idea is to find out at what level of perfection the person may be expecting you to complete that task. Yes, some things need to be perfect. If you have a multi-million dollar contract going out to your biggest customer, go ahead and spend the time to cross every “t” and dot every “i.” But sometimes there are things that just don’t need to be done perfectly. I’ve seen people take hours composing the “perfect” e-mail, and it’s not even going outside the company. You don’t need that level of brain damage for a little internal memo.

Another idea on saying no creatively is to have the other person help you prioritize. You could, for example, keep a running list of tasks and projects that the people you work with and support give you. As people come in your office or email or call you, simply ask what the priority is relative to the other priorities on your plate. Say, “I’m working on this database project that you’ve given me and running these reports. Do want to me to stop work on that and start work on this?” People need to get very specific about their needs. If you have a list of 57 prioritized tasks and this is number 14 on that list, you can be more realistic about a completion date. Have the other person help you determine where items fall, helping them to be realistic. Clearly communicate to others, “Hey I’m only one person. I can only get so many things done. What you want me to attack first?”

How do you make sure that you’re on the same page with the people you work with, so that nobody ends up disappointed, and everybody gets what they need, when they need it? Can you share some tips in gracefully saying “no” or negotiating? I look forward to learning how you handle these situations!



  1. This is really true. If I kept a list of prioritized things for my husband that alone might be a full-time job!
    As always I will keep this page in my mind when I need this type of help.
    Remember viewers, you don’t actually need to contact Laura every time you need help; just look at her site first so we can ALL have a productive day. (Do I need permission to use that phrase?)