Overwhelmed? Here’s how to say no at work

by Mar 29, 2021

When we’re first starting out our careers, it’s common to just jump at every opportunity – to say yes to everything. While this can be a good thing (hello building a professional brand), it can also lead to a too-full plate, feelings of being overwhelmed, and burnout.

So how do you know when something is important enough to add to your schedule, and when should you pass it up? And how do you even go about doing that when you’re so used to saying yes? Read on for our tips.


Ask yourself: why am I saying yes?

We all like saying yes – there are countless articles and books about the power of radical acceptance, detailing all the ways saying yes can lead to adventure, opportunities, and growth. More than that, many of us are hardwired to be agreeable people pleasers! But even this has its ups and downs.

On the one hand, being a people pleaser shows you’ve got a big heart and genuinely want to lend a hand and make others happy when you can, event to your own detriment. And on the other, if fulfilling other people’s needs comes at the disadvantage to yourself, it might be a sign you’re packing too much on your plate.

A good way of looking at your own habits and patterns of behaviour is to take into account Miller Mair’s idea of the ‘community of selves’. If you  feel you’re an anxious people pleaser at work, always taking on other people’s responsibilities and duties, but manage to set boundaries and prioritise your own needs outside of work, it can be helpful to look at these different sides of yourself using Mair’s community consideration.

The ‘community of selves’ posits that instead of having discrete ‘selves’ that operate in different ways in different scenarios, we actually have an internal ‘community’ that speaks to each other! This idea can help us a greater sense of agency and control over our lives. Instead of just accepting you’re a bit of a pushover at work, you can decide which ‘self’ to let govern your life in any chosen moment.

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the reasons this ‘people pleaser self’ might say yes to opportunities and requests when we’d really like to say no.

  • Because we really do have both time and energy to help out.
  • Because if we take on extra responsibility it will progress our careers.
  • Because we want to learn a new skill or gain experience.
  • Because we think we can’t say no.
  • Because we think it’s an expectation.
  • Because saying yes is a habit.
  • Because we think there might be negative repercussions if we say no.

Knowing why you’re saying yes when you’d rather say no will help you assess what opportunities and requests are right for you, and which ones won’t serve you.


Set up a system, and stick to it

So now you’ve got a bit of an idea of what drives you to say yes. What next?

Christie Mims, founder of The Revolutionary Club, thinks that the best thing to do when tasked with figuring out what to take on and what to allow pass you by is to create a system (she calls it a ‘code’) that you stick to whenever someone asks you for a hand at work or offers you a career opportunity.

Using her code structure (I will only say yes if…) we can establish some ground rules to avoid taking on too many extraneous tasks.

Some examples are:

  • I will only say yes to opportunities that expand my industry-specific skills.
  • I will only say yes to opportunities if they fit within the work-week. I will not give up my important weekend leisure time.
  • I will only say yes if I have the time and energy. If I don’t, I will let another opportunity go to make time before saying yes.

Having specific rules in place, even if they’re just for you, will ensure you don’t just say yes out of habit or because you feel like you have to.


Say no by saying yes

Returning for a moment to Christie Mim’s advice for saying no at work, when you go to reply to a request, you can use her three-part system:

  1. Appreciate the intent
  2. Be clear and concise
  3. Suggest an alternative

If you’re someone who says yes to their own detriment, this system will hopefully help you let other people, and yourself, down easily. Here are a couple examples:

  • I really appreciate being thought of for this project but I don’t have the expertise you need and unfortunately don’t have time to do external research. I would be happy to suggest some other colleagues who may be better suited.
  • I’m honoured you’d ask me for advice, but unfortunately my calendar is full at the moment. I know ____ has a lot of experience with this, so perhaps they’d be able to help.
  • I would love to stay back to work on ____ tonight, but I know after 5pm I don’t work to my best and end the day feeling unfocused and stressed. I’d be happy to offer a hand tomorrow morning instead.

This is a great way of saying no while not shutting down the request.


Feel bad for bailing? Pass it on!

If an opportunity comes your way that sounds good, or is important in some way, it could help alleviate that people-pleasing-impulse to suggest someone else who might be a good fit.

Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say you’re a design student who’s been working on freelance projects for a while and building your professional profile. After a year of networking and building contacts, you’ve got a full calendar with return clients and ongoing projects. Your website keeps garnering attention, though, and some exciting job opportunities are finding their way to your inbox.

What should you do next? Keep adding things to your workload until you get burnt-out? Ghost them until they get the point? Burn those bridges?

If you find it hard to say no, or would like to keep a good professional reputation with some potential future clients, a good work-around could be to pass on a fellow design student’s contacts. This will make you, your fellow student, and the client happy. Win-win-win!

An example of something you could say (using the three-step system we learned earlier) is: “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project! Unfortunately I don’t have space in my calendar for this at the moment, but my colleague *student’s name* has some experience in this area, and has more availability. Good luck and please don’t hesitate to reach out again in the future should something else come up!”


And if all else fails, you’ve still got this option:


Featured image courtesy of Unsplash

Lily Cameron

Lily Cameron

Communications Assistant

Lily Cameron is a writer and editor based in Sydney. She is a UTS Communications (Creative Writing) graduate, and current Communications Assistant at UTS Careers. She is passionate about telling stories, both hers and others’, and the way digital and social media is changing the literary landscape. Her writing has appeared in Voiceworks, The Brag, and elsewhere.