No. It’s a word many of us struggle to say. However, learning how to say no can be the key to finding greater productivity.

Saying no is often considered anti-social. The idea of saying no can be linked to being a poor collaborator. You might be worrying that declining requests will offend people or reflect badly on you. But by always saying yes, you could be compromising your work and well-being.

Knowing when to say no could be the difference between achieving peak performance at work and burning out with important tasks left unfinished.

Let’s explore the benefits of saying no, why we struggle to do it, and techniques you can use to make it easier.

Why Saying No Is Difficult

There’s a slew of reasons why we struggle to say no, both in professional and personal contexts.

Firstly, there’s the influence of social dynamics. At a basic level, always saying yes seemingly helps us avoid conflict. We are conditioned from a young age to be polite and cooperative. Whether growing up being taught to listen to authority, taking on work because it’s better to listen to the boss, or just biting our tongues to avoid arguments, conflict avoidance is and can be a healthy survival trait.

Saying no to a superior might hurt our chances of a promotion or impact job security. Even for requests with low stakes, we might be afraid of what saying no says about competence or commitment. A need to be seen as willing and capable (either by others or by ourselves) could easily lead us to misjudge our capacities – or to disregard them completely.

There is also the fear of what people will think of us. Add that to the guilt of inflicting the pain of rejection on someone, and it becomes obvious why we view ‘no’ as selfish.

We have an evolutionary drive to be accepted as part of a group. By cooperating, we prove that we’re useful and worthy of belonging. Reciprocal altruism might be a factor too. If we all help, even with no promise of reciprocation, societal norms will eventually play out to our collective benefit.

red background with letter tiles reading "no"

Why Saying No is Important for Productivity

Saying no can have a hugely positive effect on your performance and collaborations with colleagues. Here are just a few reasons why saying no is important.

Time Management

It’s crucial for protecting your time. If you’re constantly pursuing new ideas or taking on extra requests, you’re limiting the time you have to focus on the tasks, goals, and priorities you already have in the works.

Healthy Relationships

If you’re always neglecting your boundaries and taking on extra work for a colleague or a manager, they may become entitled to your support. In time, your relationships will take a hit, as you will eventually feel resentful.

Constructive Feedback

While it’s important to consider all feedback from collaborators, indiscriminately accepting every suggestion could be indicative you’re not thinking critically enough. Disregarding your own instincts could compromise the quality of your work.

Better Collaboration

Saying no gives people a clear idea of what you’re able and willing to take on, something which can inform their planning and avoid delays associated with missed deadlines. The more you say yes to what you can handle and no to what will overwhelm you, the better your lines of communication with colleagues will become.

Mental Health

Saying no helps you to avoid situations that may increase feelings of stress and anxiety. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Ensure you’re able to effectively complete what’s on your list before taking on more work or responsibilities.

balance vs burnout

How to Get Better at Saying No

Fortunately, saying no is something that you can get better at with practice. Here are 7 techniques to help you choose when to say no and learn how to do it effectively.

1. Understand Your Motivations

It’s important to understand your motivations regarding a request or an idea. That way, you can be sure you’re saying no to the right things.

You might find it useful to ask yourself questions to help figure out where you stand on a potential project or task. These should go beyond “can I do this?”, “do I have the time?” and “do I want to do this?”. It can encompass angles like “what things could I be doing if I didn’t have to do this?” and “what impact would this have on me physically, mentally, and emotionally?”.

A key here is to acknowledge why you find the choice difficult. Can you justify your “yes”? What is pushing you to say yes when you want to say no? Understanding your emotions attached to the request will help you approach your response more thoughtfully.

2. Give Yourself a Reality Check

Often, we say yes because we overestimate our available time and energy.

Take a hard look at how you spend your time and what your priorities are. This will make it far easier to make value judgments the next time you’re considering taking something else on. Relying on time management and scheduling tools may also help here, as they will give you a concrete visual of the time you have to work with.

And remember, it’s not all about time but also about capacity.

3. A Positive Sandwich

To build your confidence in saying no, it can be a good habit to mix the negative in with the positive. Try offering two yeses and a no to cushion the blow. This way, you are protecting yourself  – or at least learning how to. Eventually, you’ll get comfortable with the no.

With this method, you can overcome some of the guilt associated with rejecting others.

4. Ask for Time to Consider

While it’s usually good to give someone a definitive answer as soon as possible, sometimes you’ll only arrive at the right answer if you slow down and think.

As a stepping stone to saying no, you could ask them to put their request in a follow-up email or to give you a day or 2. That will give you time and space to decide whether you want to say yes and will also make the no seem more considered.

While beating around the bush is not a good habit to get into, it can be useful while you’re building confidence and getting a sense of when you should be saying no.

5. Express Gratitude

One hesitation a lot of us have about saying no is the fear of seeming ungrateful or impolite. A simple way around this is to express gratitude while you’re saying no (even if you don’t necessarily feel it).

Thanking someone for thinking of you for the opportunity is a quick way of making your rejection seem warmer and more sincere. You can be nice and say no at the same time.

6. Don’t Overexplain

It can be really tempting to include a rambling explanation alongside your no. It’s usually an attempt to transfer the responsibility to circumstances beyond your control. Unfortunately, it can often sound insincere or like backpedaling.

Sometimes providing an explanation is considerate, but other times it may just undermine the no. It might also lead someone to try to solve the constraint for you, leaving you in an awkward position where you now feel obligated to say yes or to double down on your explanation by digging in deeper.

7. Offer an Alternative

Offering an alternative is a great way of showing that you’d like to cooperate but can’t do it in that specific way.

If you’ve been asked to complete a project within a week, suggest that you would be able to do it if the timeline could be shifted slightly. If you’ve been asked to give a talk but don’t have time to prepare, offer the names of people who might be able to take it on instead.

For this to be effective, though, it must be an alternative that you’re comfortable with. If you’d rather not engage at all, it’s better to give an unequivocal no.

Clearing Your Plate With a No

It’s good to remember that saying no doesn’t just have to be a reaction to new requests. There are plenty of things you are currently doing that might deserve a (retroactive) no.

Try looking at areas of your life that make you feel stressed or resentful. Saying no to some of those items on your list would leave you free to say yes to new things which might fulfill you more.

It would also help you prove to yourself that “no” can be empowering.

No Isn’t (Always) Negative

You do need to say yes. “Yes” is constructive and essential to a collaborative society. Knowing the advantages of saying yes is important. But so is knowing the disadvantages.

Saying no when you need to is essential for maintaining healthy workplace relationships, boosting your productivity, and safeguarding your well-being. It will enable you to manage your workload, fulfill your obligations to the best of your abilities, and limit stress.

There are plenty of ways to make saying no feel less negative, from expressing gratitude to suggesting alternatives. Even better, the more often you say no, the easier it will become.

Remember that a clear no is far more considerate of everyone’s time and feelings than a tentative maybe or a yes that backfires later.