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Time management - Can't say 'No'

Can't say 'No'

Very few of us are good at saying ‘no’, especially to the boss. This is pretty much universal but it is an invaluable technique.
Without it you will be inundated with activities.

Not the same as work overload

We mentioned earlier that the inability to say no is different from being over confident. In the latter situation you choose to take on more work because you believe you can do it and that it would benefit you in some way.

If you can’t say no you feel pushed into a corner and partly manipulated into accepting a project even though deep down you know you haven’t got time to do it and you didn’t want to take it on anyway.

The reasons for not being able to say ‘no’ have largely been raised already, for example:

  • The need to please
  • Fear of failure

Taken advantage

When you accept tasks easily you could be making a rod for your own back.
Once people feel you will take on tasks without too much complaint it will be easy to take advantage of you.
Having a good nature can be a blessing and a curse.


If one of your colleagues really can’t take on a project (or they are good at saying no) the option often rests on the next person in the chain which could be you. In addition, if you feel obliged, for noble reasons, to step into the breach and volunteer for the task you may not be doing your self any favours.

Delay tactics

Sometimes (perhaps often) you will be asked to take on a task out of the blue. There can be a tendency to agree on the spot.
Don’t make a hasty decision. Say you will need to consider what you have on at the moment and tell the person you will get back to them.

Make sure you clarify the task at the outset as you may end up giving a reason for saying ‘no’ to the wrong task and thus undermine any way of getting out of the true task.

Beware of saying ‘may be’. This is a signal that you could possibly do it. Delay yes, but not ‘may be’.

The say ‘no’ strategy

  • Clearly there is no point in being too blunt an rude.
  • Listen carefully to the project description.
    Ask questions to clarify certain issues. Get the full information on goals, deadlines, resources, priority etc. You may be able to use this data to build into your argument for ultimately saying no.
  • You will need to be direct. Don’t be vague.
    Don’t hold out false hope once you have reached your decision be clear that ‘no means no’.
  • Justify When you refuse to take on a project make sure you back up the decision with solid reasons.
  • Options If you are unable to take on the work try to suggest alternatives.
    Suggest someone else that could help.
    Suggest another approach.
    Perhaps retiming is a possibility.

The boss

As we have mentioned in other areas if you wish to say no to your boss then back this up with good reasons.
You could ask your boss to examine you priorities which will be easily to hand from your displayed goals.

If you are the boss you should expect your staff to use the same tactics. You should encourage your staff to raise issues of project priority conflict so that you are aware of the situation.


If you find it difficult to turn down the offer of extra tasks then why not rehearse some of your replies. Imagine you are in a situation which you either suspect may occur or you have experienced in the past and think of good techniques and phrases to use.

Bear in mind that when you take on another task you are, in effect, removing the time you need for your own tasks.

Way up the requirements of the task accurately. In particular the time it will take. It is not unusual to take your initial estimate and triple it.
If you have no experience of doing a task try to ask the opinion of someone who may have had that responsibility in the past.
Don’t forget any others that may be affected by any decision you make.

If a senior member of staff is demanding your time you may be able to ask their opinion on how to balance your current priorities putting the ball in their court.

Visible alternatives

By this we mean keep a list in a convenient spot of things you would prefer to do ‘if you had the time’. This will act as an incentive to support your resolve in saying ‘no’.

Pass it on

If you don’t want (or can’t do) the task try to recommend another. Those persons should have the necessary skills and be happy to consider it.
It is important that you feel it may be of benefit to the person you have recommended, for example, they may gain specific experience.

Team work

Saying ‘no’ is good. However, this may only apply to you though. If others in your team or elsewhere are relying on the completion of the task you might not be doing them any favours by not doing it. You need to consider the balance of your decision. Which is another good reason for using the technique of ‘putting things off’.

You may be able to have some input into completing the task but not be in a position to take it on full time. This approach may be a suitable alternative that will help out your team mates.

How you get on with your colleagues can be critical to success in saying ‘no’, so foster good relations.

Non - PRINCE2 information