Learning to Say No

Learning to Say No

I had a conversation about learning to say 'no' and being comfortable with saying 'no' multiple times last week with different people. It is a fine balance between taking care of yourself and not being the person known as a 'no' person. It's something I'm still learning to do and learning how to be comfortable with it so I wanted to share my take on it all.


No one wants to be a 'no' person, but often saying 'yes' means a tax on our time. We want to be helpful. We don't want to lose future opportunities by saying 'no' now. If the person we are saying 'no' to is in a position of power, it can be intimidating or even be seen as rude.



By setting expectations up front, you can avoid or greatly reduce the conversation that would result in a 'no'.

I like working on smaller projects so I can see quick results and I like splitting my time between clients/projects so I can learn and explore. I set these expectations with my clients and recruiters up front so that when they ask if I want a 12 month full-time position for a large, slow moving company, my 'no' answer is not a surprise.

You could set the expectation that you need to pick your kids up by 6pm, so you can't stay past 5pm. Setting this expectation up front makes it much less negotiable later on.


Time boxing (along with setting expectations) allows you to take control of your own schedule. It allows you to set a goal ("I'm going to code on this project for 4 hours today") but it also means you are booking time with yourself. You and your own time are just as important as everyone else who is demanding your time.

I split my time throughout the week between multiple clients and projects. For coding work, I specifically block 4--5 hour chunks of time off on my calendar in order to avoid context switching. How does this relate to saying 'no'? If someone is trying to snag my time during that chunk, I'm already booked. It's already on my calendar. I don't reschedule client meetings if I can help it, why should I reschedule these?

I time box new business lead phone calls to 15--20 minutes and coffee meetings to 45--60 minutes. I also limit the number of each I take on each week.

You could block off time on your calendar for morning yoga or time to get to Inbox Zero each day.

Make it YOUR time, on YOUR terms.


Turn the binary response of 'yes' or 'no' into a conversation. If someone is requesting your expertise but you have too much on your plate, consider suggesting a friend or another colleague to step in.

When someone asks if you'll take less money for a job, consider negotiating the scope instead of the value of your time and expertise. This turns a 'no' into a 'yes, but what about...' type of conversation.


Keep it simple (stupid). If you are going to say no, say it and say it confidently. Don't waver, don't make excuses. Just say no. Directly. Assertively. If you say something like "Sorry, I'm busy today" the next question will be "What about tomorrow?"

And most importantly and the hardest of them all...


Figure out who you are and what you stand for. What are you willing to do? What are you willing to compromise on? What is non-negotiable? When you know these things about yourself, it will make saying 'no' AND saying 'yes' so much easier.

I know that I don't want to be a people manager. I'm good at it. People want to hire me to do it. But I don't want to do it and I know I won't be happy doing it. So I say no. Sometimes I explain it. Sometimes I don't. Because I know me best.


This entire post is like one ginormous "Note to self" post. Some of these I'm better at and some need improvements. How about you? What works and what doesn't?

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