10 Tips for Saying No to Reclaim Your Time

Do you find saying no hard to do? You’re not alone. Talented and compassionate people have been asked to do more in the past couple of years, and in turn they feel obligated to step up.

saying no

Even before the pandemic, however, women volunteered to do more grunt work, or “housework” than men did–not just at home but at the office too.

Such chores aren’t required and offer few, if any, rewards. Some examples:

  • At many workplaces, from law firms to hospitals, serving on committees
  • At hair salons, sweeping the floor when stylists don’t have a client
  • Mentoring
  • Taking on a colleague’s responsibilities when that colleague is unavailable
  • For parents — usually moms — serving on the PTA at their children’s school

Volunteering, or helping out in general, is laudable. In fact, according to Adam Grant, Wharton School of Business professor and author of Give and Take, giving is a pathway to success.

Moreover, serving others can be very rewarding.

But giving to the point of feeling depleted and resentful cancels out any rewards you may reap.

Usually, such work was rewarding when you first started doing it, but as time went on, it became less interesting. Someone, or maybe even you, tacked on more responsibilities, or “nice extras,” so that the amount of grunt work grew. In other cases, others may have started taking your work for granted, which rarely feels good.

When giving becomes grunt work, it’s a good time to stop. In other words, it’s time to say no.

Why it’s hard saying no

For many women, though, saying no is hard. Some don’t want to ruffle feathers while others hope to avoid conflict by taking care of it. Doing it yourself feels easier than trying to find someone else to do it or teach someone new.

It’s easy for someone caring to feel guilty they might be letting others down. Still, others feel obligated to stay with a role because they are so integral to the organization that they fear stepping down would cause its demise.

7 ways to say no

Over the years, my clients and I came up with seven ways to say no and three keys to do so more easily.

  1. Saying no with a parting gift. When you’re feeling especially guilty about saying no, it sometimes helps to offer the other person a little something. For example, you can say, “I can’t coordinate the volunteers’ schedule anymore. But I could become a volunteer and take one slot in the schedule.”
  2. Saying no with an exit timeline. Like the parting gift method above, this strategy can help soften the blow to those who will no longer be receiving your assistance. It also makes it harder for them to argue with you because you have proposed a specific game plan. You can say, “I’ll coordinate the volunteer schedule for the spring event, but I won’t be able to for the summer event.
  3. Saying a trial “no.” This method is good in situations when you’re not 100 percent sure you’d like to stop doing the work. You can say, “I can’t coordinate the schedule for the spring, but I may be able to do so in the summer.”
  4. Passing the torch. This is useful in instances when others are available to assume your role. You can say, “It’s time for me to step down so someone else can supervise the volunteers.” You can combine this with a parting gift (see No. 1 above) by adding, “I’d be happy to spend an hour with the new volunteer coordinator to train him or her.”
  5. Saying no with a reason. Providing a simple explanation shows that you are being reasonable. You can say, “A situation/project has arisen that requires a lot of my time and energy, so I won’t be able to help out this year.” If you can be more candid, you can reveal more, but it’s best to keep your explanation short and simple.
  6. Saying a sleep-on-it no. This helps when you want to show that you will give the other person’s request consideration. You can say, “I’m honored that you’ve asked me to do this. This is important, so I’d like to sleep on it.” Or, “Given the way things are going for me, I’m inclined to say no. But I’d like to give it some extra thought.” Then promptly, when your chosen time period expires, you can say, “I’ve given it considerable thought, and I’m going to have to say no.”
  7. Saying a simple no. This is perhaps the best way to say no of all. You can say, “I can’t take this on. Thanks for considering me.” Or, “I want to help you, but I’m not able to do this.”

3 keys to saying no more easily

  1. Practice. Decide what you’re going to say, then say it aloud. Formulating your words in advance will help you to clarify what you want to say and say it with confidence.
  2. Remember the pain. It’s important to recall your feeling of frustration, your exhaustion, and your dread of having to continue to do the work. Remembering all that will motivate you to say no and stick to your guns if you are asked to reconsider.
  3. Remember the gain. Think of what you’ll do with your reclaimed time. My clients have been so pleased with the outcome of their saying no that they’ve become giddy. Feeling the weight lift from their shoulders, they’ve noticed that their voices actually rise an octave!

Once you start, you’ll find it gets easier.

But, before you fill up that extra time with something else, take a moment to savor it. Celebrate the gain you’ve made. Again, this helps you to do #3 above. Being able to recall how good it is to get some extra space in your life motivates you to create more by saying no again.

Your turn

Which one will you try out first? And, more importantly, what will you do with your reclaimed time?

An older version of this article was first published in October 2014.