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You always have too much to do. Do you know why you always have too much to do?

Because you suck at saying no.

I’m going to let that sink in for a moment.

It’s true, isn’t it? That never-ending list of items on your to-do list at work is due, at least in part, to the fact that you don’t know how to say no. So you always feel like you have too much to do and not enough time to do it.

Same goes for your personal life, yes?

Am I right?

Darn right I’m right.

I didn’t learn how to say no effectively until a year ago, but it changed my world and I know it will change yours, too.

So how did I learn how to say no? I asked the one guy I know who has mastered the art.

A friend of mine runs a venture capital firm in Dallas. They invest in new business ideas they think will grow and bring a great return. The problem is, everyone with a business idea thinks they’ve got the greatest idea since Zappos. I figured if anyone knew how to say no with confidence, it would be my friend. He literally has to say no to dozens of requests for his time each day via phone, email, and in-person conversations. Here’s what he says:

“Thanks for your request. I simply do not have the bandwidth to consider that right now.”

And he walks away. No more explanation needed. If they ask when he will have the time, he simply says, “I don’t know.” And walks away again.

When I heard his approach, I immediately thought, “I could never say that.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t say it, I just couldn’t say it with confidence. But I knew in my heart that his response held the key to effective time control, so I decided to figure out exactly what I needed to do so one day I could say no with confidence, too. Now I say it regularly without hesitation. And it’s a whole new world.

How To Say No With Confidence:

1. Block your time.
Look at your upcoming week or month and block off time for yourself. You do this when you go on vacation, right? Why don’t you do it at work? I block off one or two significant blocks of time each week for “focus time.” This is time reserved for my most important work. I don’t schedule or accept calls, appointments, or meetings during these blocks. I also don’t read email, check voicemail, or respond to texts unless somebody is bleeding.

Important: When you block off your time, you have to treat it like you do when you schedule time with your most important client, customer, boss, etc. You wouldn’t cancel or reschedule that time, nor would you let anyone butt in on your meeting. It’s sacred. It’s committed.

Tip: You don’t have to block off your time for anything specific. Sometimes I will schedule specific time for writing or crafting a speech, but often I decide what I’m going to do with my scheduled focus time that day. But whether I have a specific purpose or not does not matter. I have committed that time to ME and MY WORK.

2. Consult your calendar first.
If you have blocked your time effectively, your calendar becomes your protector. When your time is already spoken for, you can honestly and confidently say “I don’t have time right now” when someone requests your time. You might also find yourself taking on less — which is NOT a bad thing — because you’ll start to realize how little time you really have to be amazing at what you do. And you’ll start getting better and better at protecting your time from things that will distract you from that.

3. Craft your no. Here are some suggestions:

Find a phrase that feels comfortable and natural for you. I adopted my friend’s “bandwidth” phrase because it fits with the way I normally talk. You might need to use other language that feels more natural to you.

– Time is the only excuse you need. Every excuse you may be tempted to use still means you a) don’t have the time OR b) don’t choose to spend your time that way. So don’t waste your breath coming up with other excuses.

– It’s ok to say you don’t have time, even if you DO have time. We often say yes to things just because we have the time and we haven’t developed the skill of saying no with confidence. Saying “Sorry, I don’t have time for that” is an acceptable substitute for the much harsher sounding “I don’t want to spend my time that way.”

– Keep it short. Short is confident and believable. Long excuses sound like, well, excuses.

– Let go of the guilt. Saying no is hard. Saying no to people you like is even harder. Saying no to people that need your help is excruciating. Do you give away all of your money to everyone who asks? Absolutely not, because you need some of your money — MOST of your money — for you and your family. Why, then, do you feel so guilty when you hold onto your time? Let that guilt go, brother. Nobody is going to hate you for protecting your time. In fact, they’ll wish they had your confidence and control.

4. Practice out loud.
This may sound silly, but practice saying no. Practice it out loud. Practice with a friend or your spouse (but tell them you’re practicing first). The more you say it out loud, the easier it becomes and the more confident you will feel and sound.

By the way, the ONLY thing people ever request of you is your time. It doesn’t matter if they’re asking for a report, a product, a meeting, a quick phone call, a service, etc. You may be delivering these “things” to them, but what they’ve taken from you is your time. Every time. And you don’t get it back.

So, I’m dying to hear great suggestions for saying no with confidence. How do you do it? How WILL you do it? Leave a comment so we can all learn from each other!

About mark henson

Mark is the founder of sparkspace...the most inspirational business retreat center on the planet. His blog is read by thousands worldwide each week. Mark's passion is sharing ideas that help people live and lead a rockstar life.

  • Anonymous

    As an executive administrative assistant, the most liberating thing I have accomplished is the ability to say no. I used to want to be everything to everybody, but now I control my shedule (and my executive’s)more efficiently. If I am asked to do something for which I don’t have time, or something I simply don’t want to do, I say, “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I am unable to assist you with it.”
    I love your articles, keep them coming!

    • Thanks for sharing this. I have talked to many administrative assistants who feel like they can’t say no. Maybe your example will give hope to the powerless!

  • Suki Wochna

    One of the things we talk about is “focusing on yes” – in other words, when we can’t fulfull a request exactly as asked by our internal clients, we offer alternatives which often involve effort on the part of the requestor. Interestingly, this approach weeds out those who really NEED something versus those who just want YOU to do it.

    Keep up your great blog, Mark. I look forward to your writing, especially when followed by replies like ANONYMOUS from March 7 (huh??)

    • Thanks, Suki! Great idea to offer alternatives.

      And thanks for pointing out the weird comments left by others. A few spam messages got through the filter. They’ve been removed.

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