top of page

Can't say no? Say yes... in your terms.

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

A friend of mine, let’s call him John, has a coworker whom he refers to as “my annoying coworker”. The annoying coworker is constantly interrupting John with questions or complaints. Sometimes he loses one or two hours of his work answering his colleague’s questions.

My colleague Maria has a related problem. She’s very good at what she does, so in less than 6 months at her new organization, she’s already receiving more advisory requests from colleagues than she can deal with. People ask her for help in analysing data, editing a report or commenting on a new project. While part of her work is advising colleagues, another part consists of working on her own projects and she’s lagging behind on these because of all the requests on her time.

Many of us have trouble saying no. We get numerous requests from our colleagues and coworkers and we keep saying yes, giving priority to these over our own projects. Sometimes we don’t even realize it. Tom comes to your desk and asks you if I have a minute, you say yes, of course, and after an hour you’re still helping him out. Lisa bumps into you when you’re walking back from a meeting and keeps you for 15 minutes in an impromptu hallway discussion.

The reasons we have trouble saying no are varied. It may be because we consider it our responsibility to help out, because we want to be liked, because we think it is important for our career success, because we like feeling useful, or in many cases, because we’re caught off-guard without an acceptable answer when asked for advise/support.

Whatever your own personal reasons are, these three simple solutions can help you regain control of your time and your priorities, without saying no, by having a pre-made plan to respond to requests on your time:

Compartmentalize time for others.

If part of your job entails helping/advising your coworkers, creating adequate time “compartments” for these activities is a life-saver. Working with people is an activity that can bleed-out and take up your whole day if you don’t box it in.

In the case of Maria, for example, she started creating time-slots in her calendar reserved for her advisory activities. The next time a coworker came to her for help, she said “Yes, I would be happy to help you, I have a free slot next Tuesday that I can reserve solely for you, so we can focus on your problem”. No need to say no, just a qualified yes.

Say yes, but later.

For the “Do you have a minute?” interruptions, assigning a time-slot three days later may not be a good option. A better answer may be: “Yes, I can come and see you in 10 minutes once I finish this urgent task/email/article/call”. And then make sure you make good on your promise and call back/go see your colleague.

Build in slack.

No matter how good we become at saying no or qualifying our yes, there will always be times when saying no or even yes but later is out of the question, for example when the boss needs something right away, or there’s been an important error that needs to be fixed immediately. If this happens often, you can make sure you include “slack time” in your calendar to attend to these situations without letting them destroy your carefully planned week.

Just to be clear, these solutions are not a substitute for learning how to say no. Saying no to other people’s priorities on our time just means saying yes to our own priorities. Yet in many instances, it will be important for us to help or advise others, and in these cases the solutions proposed here can help us say yes while still maintaining control over our schedule

Let me know in the comments below which of these strategies you’ve tried and suggest your own too!



Sign up to our newsletter to receive a post like this every week, and don't miss out on our leadership and teambuilding tips!


bottom of page