saying no at work

Maintaining Boundaries: How To Say No At Work

Boundaries can be a difficult concept for many. Our economy thrives on the “go-getter” attitude. Employers look for workers who will accommodate their every idea on a whim. In a society where they have often been left by the wayside to benefit the work at hand, assessing boundaries and rules around your personal space and expectations can seem almost impossible.

But at some point in your career, you will undoubtedly find that you must say “no” to someone. “No” to an idea, an experience or any additional tasks on your plate. “No” to situations that will do nothing to further your career or the productivity of the team around you. Once you’ve aligned your priorities, you may find that there are even more things to say “no” to. If saying “no” is helping you to communicate and engage more effectively with your team, then your productivity could increase as much as 20-25%.

If you are peering down the pipeline of your work and realizing it may be time to put a boundary in place, you don’t have to feel guilty about turning something down. However, there are professional ways to go about it. Here are some tips to help you approach your boundaries in a polite and productive way.

Know your boundaries

The first thing’s first: know your boundaries. If the work you have right now is enough to fill your full-time or ideal schedule then be aware of your limits. This could, of course, change depending on what stage your career is in or what personal items you have coming up. It may be worth it to schedule 10-20 minutes into your calendar to assess your upcoming work and consider where your energy would be best suited. This way, you have a bit of background to give your manager if you do experience pushback.

It is perfectly OK to realize that you do not have the bandwidth to take on additional opportunities. In fact, it is preferable to know your capabilities so you do not overpromise and under-deliver. Setting boundaries can do wonders for productivity. Being honest with yourself and your employer will help instill trust for future work.

Make a specific plan

Research indicates that having a specific approach to your response will help you act in a way that aligns with your original thought pattern and intentions. You can consider a brief staple phrase or work through a specific incident or a question you believe will be asked of you soon. You can be vague, detailed, helpful, and as honest as you want to be. If your boundary doesn’t require an explanation, that’s perfectly fine as well.

According to Christine Carter at The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, phrases to consider include: “Thank you for asking, but that isn’t going to work out for me,” ““I want to do that, but I’m not available until April. Will you ask me again then?” “I can’t do it, but I’ll bet Shelly can. I’ll ask her for you,” ““Thanks, I’ll have to pass on that,” and “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m afraid I’m already booked that day.”

Practice makes perfect

It may seem silly, but practice does make perfect, especially when it comes to saying “no.” If you are not used to giving a little pushback in the workplace, you may want to recite your clarifying reasons in the mirror or to a friend. This will help reduce the chances of feeling flustered when the time comes to respond to a colleague’s request.

If you are sending a message or email to decline a work project or client, consider bouncing your verbiage ideas off of friends, trusted colleagues or family members. Sometimes when you are in an overwhelmed or frustrated headspace, you may not recognize that your communication comes off as difficult or harsh. Take the time to ensure you are being respectful. Be concise where you can so that you aren’t wasting their time or yours when you could be managing your work.

Avoid saying “yes” immediately

Another way to identify if you have the space to work with something new is to consider why you would say “yes.” This will give you at least a moment to think through your decision. You can go through this thought process before or after you let your company know that you need some time to think on it. But you can hesitate, and you certainly don’t have to answer with an automatic “yes” to any and every proposal that is presented to you, formal or otherwise.

If you need more than a few minutes to make your decision and require some space to make said decision, a great way to approach your communication is to respond by saying, “I need to check my calendar. I’ll get back to you when I can!” Your level of enthusiasm may ebb and flow, but the sentiment is the same. You’re considering your position based on your availability and energy level, and you’re respecting their time and any other work or prior obligations they may have to fulfill in the moment.

Ask about the company or team priorities

If you are a full-time career person and want to stay in your employer’s good graces while setting firm boundaries, consider asking them what their priorities are right now. If they have a task for you that they’d like you to accomplish in a short window, you could let them know that you are capable and willing to do so. In your email or chat, ask them which current project can be pushed to accommodate the new one. This puts the ball in their court and allows them to consider their priorities.

Move forward with confidence

Set boundaries within your calendar

Be proactive with your boundaries. If you are booked solid right now, make as much of your calendar public within your team’s system as possible. If you don’t have the capacity to disclose every meeting and task item–and it isn’t readily available to them in your work technology–then block off the times you are unavailable and indicate which accounts or services you are working on within that calendar item.

Giving your coworkers a glimpse at your schedule will allow them to better assess your availability down the line. It will encourage them to approach you with new projects further in advance. (And that’s when everyone wins.)