Office Productivity: Making No Mean No

Learn to say ‘no’ to the good so you can say ‘yes’ to the best. — John C. Maxwell (author, speaker, and pastor).

In Oklahoma!, the befuddled Ado Annie Carnes sings,

I’m just a girl who cain’t say no,
I’m in a terrible fix
I always say “come on, let’s go!”
Jist when I orta say nix…

Ever find yourself in Annie’s situation? Are you a people pleaser? Do you have trouble turning down new tasks, even when you’re drowning in work? Does everyone turn to helpful ol’ you when they need something done? Is your schedule packed until the turn of the century?

Sounds like you need to learn to say no graciously—and make it stick.

Many of us have been conditioned by society to say “yes” to any reasonable request. It’s as if the word “no” is a four-letter word, even when you’ve got all you can handle on your plate. Well, get over it. That kind of thinking leads to nothing but confusion, overwork, irritability, and breakdown.

What Part of No Don’t You Understand?
Think quickly: what’s your scarcest, most important resource?

Flog yourself with a wet noodle if you didn’t immediately answer Time. Office supplies, equipment, money, and even coffee can be restocked with relative ease. Not so with time. We all get the same 1,440 minutes in our day, and once it’s used up, there’s no going back to restock it.

So until we figure out a way to drastically lengthen our lives, we’d better get as much done as we can in the time we have. Which means that in order to actually enjoy life instead of simply enduring (and to maintain your sanity), you absolutely must learn to say “no” when necessary.

You don’t have to be rude about it; you just have to make it clear and make it stick. Depending on the personality of the person you’re dealing with, a gracious “no” accompanied with an explanation of what you’re already saying “yes” to may be fine.
Otherwise, just be simple and direct, and don’t feel obligated to explain if you don’t want to. Try one these statements:

• “Sorry, my schedule is full.”
• “Not right now.”
• “Let me see if I can find someone who can help you.”
• “I don’t like to take on anything I can’t fully commit to.”
• “I’m not comfortable with that.”
• “I’m not qualified.”
• “I’m sure you’ll do a wonderful job on your own!”

Unfortunately, in some cases, a more firm rejection may be necessary. If, for example, someone refuses to take no for an answer, you may very well need to be rude. I don’t recommend it if you can avoid it, though.

Meeting Others Halfway
I realize that it may not always be possible to say no, especially in the workplace. Fortunately, there are ways of saying turning someone down without actually saying “no.” Try a mix of these:

Negotiate. Don’t assume a deadline. When someone asks you to do something, ask them if they need it now, or if you can get it to them later.

Communicate. Instead of trying to juggle a dozen tasks all due immediately, ask your boss or coworkers to prioritize them so you’ll know which is of utmost importance.

Reduce Quality. Often, good enough is good enough. Whoever’s asking for the task may not expect an exceptional level of quality; they may just want it done. So find out exactly what they want.

Streamline. If they want something huge, ask if they really need it that big. They may be just as happy with a slimmed-down version.

Eliminate. Rebuild your personal and departmental boundaries so that certain tasks are no longer your ambit. Then look at every task remaining and ask yourself if anyone would notice it if you stopped doing it. If not, stop!

Get Creative. Take stock of your situation, look closely at your systems and processes, and redesign what you can to make yourself more productive.

Partial Delivery. If you just can’t do it all but have to turn in something, ask if you can turn it in piecemeal.

All these are effective ways of keeping yourself from being overwhelmed, even when the fat’s in the fire and you’ve got no choice but to accept work you don’t really need. Put them in play, see how they work for you, and refine them as you go.



  1. The *ability* to say NO is an important attribute of a productive person. You cannot just take whatever comes in, lest your workflow will become prone to disintegration. I think “saying NO” is an art that must be mastered.


  1. Monday mojo says:

    […] Want to be more productive? Laura Stack says you should probably start learning to say “no” […]