how to say no to work

When and How to Say No

Because sometimes ‘no’ can be a positive thing.

If you’ve recently (or ever) said yes to too much and found yourself in a downward spiral of exhaustion, burnout and ‘why the hell did I say yes to everything?’ grab a seat, because this one’s for you. 

Let’s face it, some of us are better than others at saying no, but for a lot of us, we have this constant need to people-please and find ourselves saying yes to things we can’t or don’t want to do, just so we can avoid the crippling guilt that comes with maybe disappointing someone about something that they really aren’t bothered about at all. Meanwhile, you’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking of ways you can either avoid them for the rest of eternity or maybe arrange a fruit basket as an apology (again, for something that you probably don’t need to apologise for). Aaaand exhale. Sound familiar? If it does, read on for our top tips on when and how to say no…

Say ‘No’ When You Can’t Deliver

This all starts with being really, truly honest with yourself and asking ‘how much time do I actually have and how well am I using it?’. If this question is hard to answer because you take each hour as it comes, our best advice would be to get organised (and no, we’re not just saying that because we’re a bunch of PAs). Sign yourself up for Google Calendar (or whatever takes your fancy) to note down everything you need to do over the next month, or week, or however long you want to plan ahead. Once you see it all there, you might realise how much of your time has already been reserved. And hey, if the idea of organising your time on this level makes you want to crawl into a cave and stay there, you could always hire a Virtual Assistant to do it for you. 

It happens all the time – you say yes to a project, thinking you have all the time in the world, but instead, find yourself panic-stricken the day before, typing at the speed of light on a potent blend of caffeine and whatever’s in the cupboard to fling on some toast. If you have your calendar all set out and you’re trying to squeeze in some extra work, we’d recommend leaving yourself some wriggle room of a day or two between deadlines. It totally depends on how you work (and how familiar you are with how long it takes things) but it’s always better to hand something in too early, than too late. 

So, if your inbox is bombarded with people dying to work with you (not a bad thing, is it?) and you don’t have the time and resource to deliver, the first port of call is to set the expectations. For example, respond back to an enquiry with “let me check timings and see if I have the resource” – review, see if it’s actually possible and then get back to them with a polite ‘I’ve just checked, and I don’t have the resource this week – I’m available from x if you’d still like me to work on this’ (or something along those lines). It’s better to do this than say ‘yes’ straight away and know it’s not going to happen (or it will, but you just have to sacrifice eating, sleeping and peeing for the next 3 weeks).

Say ‘No’ When it Doesn’t Tick Your Boxes

Ooh this is a tough one, but probably one we’ve all faced at one point or another. To do this, you first need to figure out what those boxes are as some sort of criteria to measure against: Money? Opportunity? Networking? Charity work that makes your soul happy? Decide what the priority is for you and mark it against those points. Being kind to others and helping them along the way in their journey is an important part of being a good human and will likely set you up for some good vibes making their way back to you in the future, but it’s also important to know when to draw the line. 

Before you say ‘no’ question how close the opportunity is to ticking those boxes – make sure to ask questions and be crystal clear on what would need to change in order for you to say yes (eg: more money, more information on the ethics of their work, who else will be taking part etc). It could tip things in your favour and get you on board for them – everyone’s happy. If it’s waaayy off anything you’d want to do, the best bet is to be super transparent and say ‘thank you, but this isn’t for me’. Or, if the idea of being so to-the-point makes your skin crawl, you could always say that you don’t have the time (see point one). 

Say ‘No’ When You Know it’s Not the Right Project For You

Just because a project isn’t right for you, doesn’t mean that you can’t help in some way. One of the best things about having a network of people you trust is that you can all pass opportunities onto each other. Knowing the people you’d recommend based on their skills and interests can help in these situations where a project isn’t right for you. There’s a famous quote by Richard Branson that says “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later!” which is all fine and well on a LinkedIn post, but when it actually comes into play, can create a lot of problems for you and the other person. You know an opportunity isn’t right for you when it doesn’t excite you or when it would probably take more time to learn how to do the task at hand than actually doing the task itself. 

In this case, let them know that this project isn’t for you and most importantly, why it isn’t for you (this is an opportunity to say what you can do, so they keep you in mind for future projects). From there, send over a list of your recommendations – you’ll make their life easier, push a great opportunity towards someone in your network and start to build a great relationship with that person, who might come back with an opportunity that’s right up your street one day. 

how to say no when you're exhausted

Say ‘No’ When You’re Exhausted

Repeat after me – just because there are some empty slots in your calendar, it does not mean that you have to fill them up with work. Rest is just as important, if not more important than working, as your body and brain need to rejuvenate to avoid exhaustion, fatigue and burnout. There’s science to back it up and everything. If you’re feeling tired, irritable and often find yourself in a dense cloud of brain fog, then you should probably take things down a little and give yourself more time to complete the tasks you really need to do, or at least outsource them to someone else (we can help you there). Now is a good time to prioritise sleep and think about if you need an extra pair of hands to take some tasks off your to-do list. 

So, how do you say ‘no’ when you know you have time, but really, you’re body is demanding that you take 40 (thousand) winks instead of taking on another project. Well, it really depends on the relationship you have with the person; if you know them well, you can be upfront and honest – say you’re taking some time to rest and will get back in touch when you’re ready to take on the challenge. Or, you could always say that you don’t have the time to deliver the project (again, see point one). The thing is, you’re technically not lying, your time might not be booked for other work, but it’s fully booked for some much-needed rest. 

Say ‘No’ When You’re Not Feeling Great

We’re willing to bet our last teabag in the office that most of us have been at work with the cold, but a line needs to be drawn somewhere. If that cold has gone beyond the ‘slight sniffle’ stage or you need to quickly end a conference call to go and spew in the bathroom, you probably shouldn’t be working that day. Especially those who have their own businesses or work remotely, the thought of taking three days off to lie in bed feeling sorry for themselves is enough to make stress levels sky-rocket. But it’s needed – when you’re not well, your body is trying to tell you something and that something is ‘okay seriously, will you let me rest now?’.

Even though it’s all we ever knew in school, you don’t need your mum to write a sick note for you anymore (at least, we hope you don’t). If you can’t deliver on something, just send an email or phone to say that you’re not well. We’ve all been there – no one’s going to give you into trouble and if the deadline’s urgent, outsource if you can. 

Okay, so that’s what to do when you’re physically unwell, but what about mental wellbeing? In the last few years, we’ve seen the conversation on mental health open up a lot more than before, which is great, but still, according to a report by The Prince’s Responsible Business Network, only 16% said they’d feel comfortable reporting a mental health condition in the workplace. There are loads of factors that can contribute to how you want to say no to something if your mental health isn’t at its best. First of all, do you want to talk about your mental health outside your close circle? And if so, how well do you know the person you’re speaking to – do you feel comfortable telling them and are they the type of person who would understand? Often, if you’re totally transparent, a great client or boss will respond with nothing but support and in turn, it helps to open the conversation and end the stigma around talking openly about mental health (go you!). However, you’re under no obligation to talk about it if you’re not quite ready to do so. At this point, a white lie could be best – either respond to say that you don’t have the resource, or maybe that you’re going on holiday. Mental health is just as important as physical health and you still need that all-important time to rest. 

With our experience as PAs, we communicate with people every single day (it’s the biggest part of our job). What we’ve learned is that we’re all human beings and no matter your reason, people will be a lot more understanding than you think. The key is in communication, letting someone know that you can’t do something is better than avoiding it, or saying yes and taking on too much. At the end of the day, it’s your workload and your wellbeing – take time to think about your limits and create a lifestyle that works for you. 


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