Saying no to save your career

Overextending ourselves with work, family and extra-curricular activities is a common problem—and yet, it can be the number one career mistake according to American leadership coach and bestselling author of several work management books, Marshall Goldsmith.  

A study by University of North Carolina Chapel Hill researchers found we often over-commit because we expect to have more time in the future than we do in the present. Then when time passes, we still can’t (reasonably) fit in that extra work assignment or industry happy hour. What’s more, the idea of saying “no” instills the fear that we’ll lose respect, damage relationships or anger someone important to us, according to the author of the book The Disease to Please.

So what do we do? We say “yes” and try tirelessly to make it work regardless of our schedule. Here’s the deal: saying “yes” to every request doesn’t just leave us overextended, stressed and angry, it can lead to exhaustion, and even worse, illness.

The trick to maintaining our health and sanity, as well as having a better chance at achieving work/life balance, is learning how to say that scary word: “No,” more often. This isn’t about saying “no” to necessary commitments: preparing for that big client meeting or picking your kids up from school. It’s about the one-off requests that have you secretly asking yourself, “How am I going to make this work?”

You can say “no” without compromising relationships, your job or feeling overwhelming guilt.  Here are six suggestions:

  • Ask for time: Instead of saying “yes” or “no” right away, ask if you can think about it and get back to them in a day or two.
  • Weigh the sacrifices: In other words, think about if you said “yes” to this assignment or event, what it would ultimately mean you’re saying “no” to. Is it other pressing work-related matters? Is it family? You may find the ‘juice isn’t worth the squeeze.’
  • Communicate in-person: Emails can often get misinterpreted. Instead, meet in person and keep your explanation short and sweet. For instance, “I won’t be able to handle this now, because I have several commitments with X, Y and Z.” 
  • Provide alternative solutions: If you decide you can’t take on additional work, try to help the person who approached you. Ask if you can help them find someone who may have more time or will be better equipped, or ask if you can handle at a later date.
  • Be ruthless with your time: It doesn’t take an expert to realize time is precious. Sometimes by saying “no” to events or extra assignments that don’t fit with your overall goals, it leaves you time to engage in other work or activities that do.
  • Take breaks often: None of us can be successful without some rest and relaxation to re-energize and reinvigorate. In fact, a 2011 study in the Journal of Cognition actually finds that taking breaks from work can improve mental clarity and productivity—and skipping breaks can lead to exhaustion and stress.

Need help honing this skill? Ask a company mentor or trusted leader what their advice is for tactfully saying “no” to projects or invitations. Chances are they have their own tricks of the trade that have allowed them to maintain positive relationships and keep their career on track.