In the early days of your career, nobody recommends you say not to your boss. Instead, you’re encouraged to unquestionably always say ‘yes.’
We’re told to make ourselves available to anyone who needs us, because this is the best way to learn; to signal that we’re eager for opportunities. It’s the way to make a name for ourselves.
Sure, that can all be true. The more you show you can do, the more others will trust in your ability and want to collaborate, or delegate work to you.
The more you do and the more successful you become, the more opportunities you attract. And it may seem counter-intuitive at first, but too many opportunities can be a problem.
Your calendar gradually fills up, to the point that it becomes overwhelming and unsustainable.
“Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective — doing less — is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.” — Tim Ferriss
The problem with being the ‘yes’ guy
According to The American Institute of Stress, 94% of American workers report experiencing stress at work, and the primary source of stress for 35% of workers is their boss.
A survey conducted by Everyday health further demonstrates that stress is on the rise among younger generations and presents a larger global problem than it did 20 or 30 years ago.
57% of the survey respondents reported feeling paralyzed by stress, so much so that 63% of US workers are ready to quit their jobs due to stress.
Heavy workload is a leading source of stress.
As such, learning to say NO is necessary
“Love yourself enough to set boundaries. Your time and energy are precious. You get to choose how you use it. You teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.” — Anna Taylor
Yes, setting these boundaries is easier said than done. Saying ‘no’ can be petrifying. What if they don’t like me? Will they stop counting on me for interesting work? What if they fire me? What if they think I’m lazy? Am I being lazy?
No, you’re not lazy, and as Jessica Wildfire notes, “saying no doesn’t make you ‘mean.’ You’re being selective; you’re being smart. As Tim Ferriss notes, “Doing less is not being lazy. Don’t give in to a culture that values personal sacrifice over personal productivity.”
It’s completely justified to say no when you have too much on your plate. The key is learning to say it without offending your boss and maintain your presence at the top of their mind for future opportunities.
Your message must be clear and firm, yet empathetic, and entirely professional. It’s also a great idea to offer an alternative suggestion for how things could be done — it’ll get you off the hook and show that you’re an effective problem solver.
So here are a few things to bear in mind when you need to say no.
1. Give a valid reason
Having too much work to do is a legitimate reason. Thank your boss for thinking of you, but explain what you’re working on and what your deadlines are.
“Thank you so much for thinking of me for this, but I was planning to spend this week working on [name of other projects].”
Any good boss will understand that you can only be in one place at any one time. Plus, the ball is now in their court to consider which tasks are a bigger priority. If the new task is more important, they’ll probably readjust the deadlines of your other assignments to ease your workload.
Another reason could be that you don’t think you’re the best person for the job; introduce them to someone who might be better equipped to help them.
2. Show your gratitude
As Michael Kerr, author of The Humor Advantage, explains, your boss is giving you more work because they have faith in your abilities. Showing gratitude shows that you recognize this, and in a way, affirms that you, too, trust that you can do a good job.
Plus, it indicates that you are interested and that you would take on the work if it weren’t for other commitments. So you’re likely to remain at the forefront of their mind when a new, exciting opportunity comes along.
3. Be empathetic
You are at work to work. Your boss is counting on you, so it’s important to acknowledge the importance of their request. It’s a good idea to include a sentence along the lines of:
“I understand that this is very important so I want to be able to give it my full attention. However, I don’t have the capacity to take it on this week”.
It shows that you understand the urgency and that you’re committed to helping. The only thing holding you back is other work. If they want you to assist with this new task, they’ll probably take some of your work off your hands or extend the deadline so that you can do both.
4. Find an alternative solution
If you think some time will clear up next week, you could consider getting to work on it then:
“Please could you advise what the deadline is? I could dedicate my time to this next [insert day] if this would be helpful?”
Or, you could find a colleague who can help. So long as your colleague isn’t overbooked too, a good co-worker could be willing to help you out. You should explain to your boss why you weren’t able to do it, but you’ve shown them that you’ve solved the problem by finding someone else to take on the task. So long as the work is getting done, your boss is likely to be happy.
Plus, they’re likely to feel confident that their workforce can organize themselves proactively; you’ve just made their life easier. It’s also a great way to network with colleagues, and who knows, maybe they’ll come to you with a good opportunity in the future!
“…there are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.” — Elaine St. James, Living the Simple Life.