Time Management

by Di McLanachan

The art of saying ‘no’

There are times when it is important to recognise that if you accept more work on top of your existing workload, either deadlines will be missed or you will end up working a lot of extra hours, which may encroach into your personal time and cause you added stress. In this situation, it is better to politely and assertively decline extra work rather than take it on and hope you will muddle through somehow. The following is a technique called the Assertive Sentence, which works particularly well in this scenario.

The assertive sentence is a four-part structure, made effective by the fact that it starts by acknowledging the other person’s view. This means that it sounds very reasonable and it is therefore hard for the other person to contradict it or argue against it, because it includes their view.

It is important to avoid using the word ‘but’, which suggests that what follows next will be unacceptable. ‘However’ or ‘and’ sounds far more open and optimistic. By saying what you feel and what you want to happen (which takes the other person’s view into account), you are clearly defining your position and the other person will know exactly where they stand with you.

If a mutually beneficial outcome is not achieved the first time, then repeat the sentence, changing some words around and including the other person’s view again, which may have changed. Because the structure is good, the sentence will eventually achieve the desired outcome, even when some repetition is required. This is called the ‘broken record’ technique.

The sentence is structured as follows:

  • Acknowledge the other person’s view
  • ‘however...’
  • Say what you feel
  • State what you want to happen.

‘I appreciate that you need this report done by the end of the week; however, with my current workload commitments, the earliest that I could get this done by is the following Friday. If you can live with that, then I’ll take it on; otherwise it will need to be allocated to someone else who can meet your deadline.’

Or, ‘I appreciate that you currently have a very high workload; however, your input at today’s meeting is vital so that important decisions can be made, and therefore I would be grateful if you could attend for the first 20 minutes to provide us with your data.’

If what you propose is not acceptable to the other person and you are currently working on other tasks for them, you could ask them to select some current tasks that could be deferred in order to allow you to fit in this new task.


So how do you know when it is appropriate and fair to say ‘no’?


Don’t accept monkeys on your back unless the training of that particular monkey is part of your job description!

The above is one of the simplest and most essential rules of (time) management. If you get into the bad habit of taking on monkeys, you end up sending two signals:

1. Your people can depend on you to solve all their problems.

2. You don’t think they’re capable of solving it themselves.

Another problem with gathering monkeys that do not belong to you is that you become a bottleneck. Many other people are waiting on you to finish your bit of the task.

The more monkeys you hand back to your people, the more time you can devote to those same people.

So make sure that the right things get done the right way, at the right time, by the right people.

Why are you still saying yes?

If you’ve read the above and tried to put it into practise, but you’re still having trouble saying ‘no’, ask yourself why you’re saying ‘yes’.

No is one of the shortest and simplest words in English, yet it causes stress for even the most confident of people. Type A people suffer from a natural tendency to bite off more than they can chew. If you still have this problem, you need to plan more effectively and should start using Things-to-do lists. You might also read the Work-life Balance topic.

Most Type B people, on the other hand, shrink from saying ‘no’ because they would rather sacrifice their time, energy and money than cause conflict or awkwardness, or experience feelings of guilt. If you find that you are baulking at using the assertiveness sentence, and that you are still – although perhaps now knowingly – taking on monkeys, you need to do some more work on yourself.

Learning to say ‘no’ may take practice and patience – and a willingness to step out of your comfort zone. If you have been taking on other people’s problem tasks, ask yourself ‘What caused this to happen? And what caused that?’ Ask yourself ‘How can I prevent this from happening again?’

To help you learn to say ‘no’, here are some points to consider.

1. Respect yourself

Develop a new respect for yourself. Revisit your personal boundaries and honour your commitments to yourself. Once you begin to respect yourself fully, others around you will find it easy to respect you.

2. Get your priorities straight

What’s most important to you? Write it down. Keep a copy with you at all times. Once you know what it is you want for yourself, it will be easier to stop agreeing to things that will get in the way.

3. Take responsibility for yourself

When you realise that only you are responsible for yourself and for the tasks you take on, you’ll recognise that saying ‘yes’ to things to which you really want to say ‘no’ to is just a way of deferring making your own decisions.

4. Get clarification

Assert your right to ask for clarification or more information. This will buy you time, and allow you to weigh your options and your priorities. It will also make it clear to the other person that you’re not agreeing to their request straight away.

5. Don’t be so nice

Stop being invested in being nice. If you say ‘yes’ so that you can be the nice guy, then the chances are you’ll follow through half-heartedly. This won’t go down well with the person who asked you – and you won’t feel good about it yourself.

6. Yes or no?

Remember that you do not have to say ‘yes’. You have the right to say ‘no’ without giving a reason for your answer.

7. No is just no

Accept that saying ‘no’ does not reject the person; it simply refuses the request.

8. Be assertive

Don’t give a long explanation and don’t apologise for yourself. No more ‘I’m sorry, but...’

9. Practise

Say ‘no’ in the mirror; role play situations with your partner/friends/family, and practise in real life, starting with smaller things and working your way up to saying ‘no’ in more difficult situations.

Also see Assertiveness : Saying no for more on saying ‘no’.