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How to Say No For Maximum Productivity

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Let’s see if you recognize yourself in this situation: in the middle of a busy day, a person you know comes up to you and asks you for a favor. Your gut feeling says that you shouldn’t do it, but the nice person inside of you agrees to do it. And right after your agreement, you feel bad and in your head you know you shouldn’t have agreed to it. Sounds familiar?


A lot of people have a hard time saying no to others. We often feel like we should do something while our gut instinct says we really shouldn’t. You are not alone. It’s a common “problem” people have and it can be a costly mistake to make in terms of your productivity. Getting interrupted, shifting to do something else, and then going back to your task can really hurt your productivity. You lose a lot of time that you might otherwise have invested wisely.

To really maximize your time, you have to learn to be able to say no. This does not only apply to other people, but also to other things like choosing to miss out on an amazing party because you prioritized that waking up early and going to the gym is more important. This has a lot more to do with discipline, but what I want to share with you is how to overcome this fear of saying no to others.

We often fear saying no to people for reasons that might include:

  • You don’t want to be the odd person out – you will agree against your own values because you don’t want to alienate yourself from the group.
  • Afraid of being rude – your construction of reality might give off the idea that saying no to others can be considered “rude”.
  • Hurting people’s feeling when we reject them – you don’t want to damage the relationship you have with that person by rejecting them.
  • Fear of conflict – you might think that the other person will get angry at you for saying no.

Has anyone ever punched you in the face for saying no to a request? I doubt it. Unless we are talking about life or death situations, most of the consequences you have are imaginary. To resolve these fears, we have to replace them with healthy mindsets that empower you. From my experience of studying and talking to people who have strong boundaries, I came up with a list of mindsets that will help you empower to say “no” to others:

By having these mindsets you will have more courage or power to say no to other people. These fears are really imaginary (that’s why some people say FEAR is an acronym for “False Evidence Appearing Real”). If you practice a couple times saying no to others, you will see and pick up the reference experiences that the world doesn’t end and that you are not getting punched in the face.


To give you an idea how this works in real life, let’s imagine for a moment that you are a telemarketer for a pharmaceutical company. Each day you get a list of phone numbers you need to call to sell pharmaceutical products and you need to reach a quota of $10,000 USD a month in order to get enough commission so you can live your life (like pay your rent, insurance, bills, and so on). Anything below 10k and you really have to live on a tight budget the following month.

Now it’s the last day of the month and you’re currently at $9,100 in sales. You need another $900 to keep yourself comfortably afloat. Your boss, a big scary guy, comes to your desk and asks “Hey can you do me a favor? I want to buy lunch for everyone in the office but I need someone to place the order and pick up the food. Can you do this for me?”

What do you do?

If you answered with something along the lines of “Yeah of course” I have now permission to harm this innocent kitten.

Kill kitten

Just kidding. I would never harm this innocent little kitten.

In that scenario, the right thing to say is no.

Say what? He is your boss. Are you crazy?

Perhaps I am. Your time for making sales is more valuable to the company (and your boss) than ordering and picking up lunch. Some of you might say “but that’s your boss, his word is the law”. I totally understand this but your boss will respect you more for bringing in more (potential) money than ordering lunch. The best thing to do is to politely decline with an explanation and to continue your work. How you do that and more is explained later on.

Opportunity Costs

Now that you have an understanding of your fears and the right mindsets, let’s backup those mindsets with some supporting materials. Your brain can’t believe something unless it has reference experiences to back it up. For that you first have to understand why saying no is important for time management.

In order to be productive, you need to know what you will be working on and what you will NOT be working on. The latter is really important because you have to think in terms of opportunity costs. From an economical perspective, it can be very costly to agree to something you don’t have time or resources for.

You always have to take into account the opportunity cost when you say yes. What else could you have been doing instead of X, Y and Z that you said yes to?

Vision leads to the right actions

With the right vision, objective or goal, you will know what to do (or what not to do).

If you want to maximize your time, the most precious resource you have, you need to learn to able to say “no” to other people. It is important to know what you are working towards, so you make it easy for yourself to reject things that do not align with your objectives, goals or values. This top-down approach makes it easy to see how you should prioritize and what actions you should be taking. As we have written before about alignment of time and goals, rejecting requests from others help you stay on course to your destination.

This goes not only for entrepreneurs, but also for people who work in office environments. When you first get hired, you are told to meet certain expectations. This could be meeting a certain sales quota every month to being the best customer service rep to being the team leader that sets a good example. Everyone in an office has to meet some form of expectation(s). Your boss or manager can tell you exactly what those are in case you don’t know. Why am I bringing this up?

Like I said earlier, to make it easy for yourself to reject requests from others, you have to clearly know what you need to be working on and what expectations to meet. If someone is asking you to do something, you have to consider the following:

  • Does this help me get closer to my goals or objectives?
  • Am I the best person to do this?
  • Can I fit this into my schedule?

If you answer no to any of these questions, it is probably not good use of your time to say yes. Politely decline and keep working on what matters.

However, if the request helps you reach your goals or objectives, accept it and re-evaluate where it falls under your priorities. This skill is so key, especially when you work in a startup or agile environment where the things to do and priorities always keep changing.

NOTE: With all these guidelines, I don’t want to make you a machine or robot with no emotions. If someone is asking you for a favor, it is perfectly fine to go out of your way to help that person even it doesn’t help you reach your objective(s). You just want to be careful that you don’t become the person that does favors each and every time, because then people will flock to you automatically whenever they need something.


Okay, so you have an idea why having strong boundaries is important for your time. To get you started, I’ve listed a bunch of catchphrases you can use right away. In my opinion, the best way to say no is by being upfront about it and grounding your reason. If you can find another solution to the person asking, that is even better.

Here are a couple of catchphrases you can use:

  • “I would love to, but (reason).”
  • “I wish I could, but (reason).”
  • “I wish I could but my workload is really high right now and I need to finish some other important stuff first.”
  • “Right now is really difficult for me because I’m in the middle of (situation) and I really need to work on this first.”
  • “To be honest with you, I might not be the best person for this. Could you try someone else? In the worst case scenario I can do it but I think you’re chances are better with someone else.”

It’s not the about the fact that you say no but it is about how you convey it. If someone is asking you if you could generate some time intensive reports, flat-out saying “no” without any explanation might come across as rude and inconsiderate. This is the fear most people have and if in the past you did this with bad consequences, then it makes completely sense why you’re having this fear.

What you need to work on is how you convey it. If you can convey in the right manner that you cannot do it then it really does no harm. By borrowing one of the catchphrases above, you could say to the example above something along the lines of: “Hey (boss name) I wish I could but my workload is really high right now and I really need to make a couple more sales to reach my quote for the month. I hope you understand” and that would be perfectly fine.

If you still have trouble enforcing your boundaries and saying no, I can highly recommend the book Pulling Your Own Strings by Wayne Dyer to help you out with this.

I’m curious to see if you have any problems with saying no to others. Please leave a comment behind if you do and let’s resolve this.

Photo by dryhead.

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Posted by Linda Maye Adams  | October 10, 2016 at 3:33PM | Reply

Super important to say no to some things, because people will start taking advantage–and it will never stop once it gets a foothold.

I used to have a boss, now almost three years ago, who required us to answer every question that landed on our desk, regardless of if it actually had anything to do with the job. And he wanted it done immediately, so it blew any prioritization out the window. The result was that I would get calls from people–“Jane isn’t answering her phone. Can you help me?” Me: “Did you leave a voice mail for Jane?” “No. But you can help me.” I still get people emailing me and telling me they need help with X, and it has nothing to do with my job. If I tell them I don’t know anything, then they email back wanting to know who can help (it’s not something that they couldn’t find out on their own, but email is apparently easier). I finally got to the point where I just delete the emails. But once things are established like that, people never forget, and worse, they tell other people, “Sure, she’ll help!”

Posted by Jeff Drew  | November 9, 2014 at 1:19PM | Reply

Always good advice and your attention to keywords & concepts is useful for me. Here are a couple anecdotes based on my work life. One; don’t live your life in fear! The minute you renounce fear and own your life, you will experience true freedom! All other benefits start at that point. Two; a sharp boss would know what day it is and how busy everyone is. Perhaps you are the one he thought could do the job? Delegate/outsource! show that you can make quota AND feed the troops! Three; don’t say “f##k NO!” I found that was a bridge-burner! ;-)

Posted by Atul Chougule  | October 25, 2014 at 3:02PM | Reply

Great Post! I’m using the the techniques mentioned here & are really very helpful for me. Please recommend the list of books to improve my assertive skills. Waiting for reply!

Posted by Daniel  | September 14, 2014 at 8:37AM | Reply

Great post. I needed this information. I especially needed to hear the 3rd mindset: “I won’t be nice to others at the expense of myself,” because I do this constantly.

Although I know I’ve been doing a great job at work, a lot of the stuff I have been working on are things outside my core priorities/responsibilities. I am great at data analysis, for example, but it’s not the core of my job. I’ve got to say ‘no’ to these projects (politely) using the tactics mentioned in this article so I can focus on my core job responsibilities.

Posted by Ryan Leach  | March 28, 2013 at 2:15PM | Reply

Great topic and post!

I often run into a tricky situation in which people will ask me if I want to work on a project, and before I can say yes or no I need to know more about it. In my case that usually involves watching their film, and if I don’t like it I’m then always trying to figure out how to say no without making them think it’s because I didn’t like their work (even if that’s often the case).

I usually go with “I’m too busy right now” but “I might not be the best person for this” seems like it might be a good approach too. Any other thoughts on how to say no without offending someone’s precious creation?

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | April 26, 2013 at 5:50AM

Both those seem like good approaches.

The other thing that I’ve done is explain that a creative work or a behaviour isn’t a reflection of one’s creativity or value as person (even though most people think it is). I then explain that I don’t want to work on a particular project – very clearly stating that it’s the project, not the person.

Posted by Andy Reed  | June 19, 2012 at 8:45PM | Reply

Awesome post. I will be putting your catchphrases to use tomorrow! Thanks for keeping the website fresh and interesting.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | June 21, 2012 at 12:42PM

Hi Andy I hope the phrases worked for you!

Posted by Alishan  | June 9, 2012 at 10:50PM | Reply

You guys are amazing. I love you. I can’t believe you put all this stuff up for free. How do you make a living?

I definitely have this problem, but you are helping me to think more clearly about the reality of the value of my time. Thank you.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | June 12, 2012 at 11:17PM

Thanks Alishan! We are just trying to give out as much as we know without expecting anything in return. I’m glad the articles are useful to you.

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