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How to say no


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My friend Megan is a complete sucker. I love her, but she’s constantly getting roped into doing favors for people. And not always for friends, often just acquaintances from work. These aren’t things that she enjoys or that are her responsibility, either. She just has a hard time saying no to a request for help.

She recently told me about a meeting she setup to back out of something she decided she just didn’t have time for. By the end of the meeting, she not only hadn’t quit, but she’d somehow agreed to a brand new commitment.

We all have this trait, some of us worse than others. And all in all, being too willing to help others isn’t the worst thing, but the end result is often overcommitment, which isn’t good for anyone.

When you have trouble saying no to requests from people, you almost invariably take on more than you can handle. And then your work suffers. Ironically, the more competent you are, the more requests you get and the more frazzled and overworked you become.

And the worst of it is that you know that you’re overcommitted but you still can’t seem to say no. You know in the back of your mind that by saying yes, you’re taking on something that you won’t be able to finish on time or with your best quality, but you still say yes. I wonder if some part of us thinks that it really is the thought that counts. That somehow by saying yes, we’re building up credit even if we can’t deliver later.

Maybe that’s our subconscious view, but the truth is almost the exact opposite: people will respect you (and your time) far more when they sense that you have a strong handle on your capabilities and you refuse to overcommit yourself. It’s almost always better to know sooner rather than later that someone won’t have time to do the thing you need done from them, because then you can make other arrangements.

But just knowing this doesn’t help you actually deal with all these incoming requests from people, so here’s the approach you can take to handle requests you don’t want to do:

1. Do we really need to do this?

90% of everything is crap, and probably unnecessary. Before you do anything, question whether anything should be done by anyone. Expect a fight here, because the person almost certainly has some attachment to this little project or they wouldn’t be asking you.

2. Not my problem, sorry.

Ok, this is ideal, but if it were this easy for you, you wouldn’t be reading this. But this is sometimes the best answer, though it seems harsh. Obviously, you wouldn’t say it like this. Instead, you’d say something like:

“Wow, Bob, I’m really flattered that you thought of me for this project, and it sounds really interesting. Unfortunately, I’m completely booked right now and I’d hate to take on more than I can handle and have this project suffer as a result.”

Don’t lie, obviously. If the project sounds like crap, don’t say it sounds amazing. But there’s no reason to burn any bridges unnecessarily.

3. Defer until later

Dangerous, but you can always ask them to hit you back up again in a few days / weeks / months / etc. If you do this, make it clear that you probably won’t have time then either, or you risk becoming the “sure thing” backup in their mind, which means they’ll spend about 10% as much effort trying to find a good alternative.

4. Pass the buck

This one can be really nice or really mean, depending on how you use it. If you don’t have time or inclination to help with something, why not suggest someone else for the project? Suggest someone else who would be interested and do a great job and you’re a hero. However, if you’re suggesting someone that you know won’t be able to say no, you’re an asshole. Don’t be an enabler.

5. Be noncommittal, in person anyway.

If you’ve had trouble saying no before, this is the path I recommend. When speaking to someone in person or on the phone, DO NOT SAY YES OR NO. Just say you need to think about it, check your calendar, etc. Feel free to say you need to check with your spouse / boss / cat / etc. Do whatever you need to get out of there without committing to anything other than thinking about it. Then shoot them an email or a text and say no.

Like breaking up, declining requests is best handled in person, but we’ve already established that you’re not strong enough to do that. Better to be aware of it and work within your limitations to be honest with the person than to try to take a high road you’re not strong enough to take and end up disappointing everyone.

If this is interesting to you, I suggest an exercise from Tim Ferriss: spend a few days or even a week and practice turning things down. Turn down everything you can without getting ostracized / fired / divorced / killed / etc. You can always go back next week and change your mind for the stuff you really want to do, but it’ll give you some good practice at saying no.

By the way, it’s normal to start to enjoy saying no, just a little. When you say no to something, you immediately squash an open loop before it really even starts, and the cognitive minimalism this habit engenders after a bit of practice is downright addictive. But don’t feel bad, because it allows you to say yes to the things you really care about, and kick ass with them.

PS – And if I ask you to do something, ignore everything above :)

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9 Responses to “How to say no”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ryan Waggoner and Y Combinator Newest!, HN Firehose. HN Firehose said: How to say no: http://bit.ly/dSQ0OT [...]

  2. Robert Kerr says:

    I was going to comment, but then I decided to just say "no".

  3. berenguel says:

    I love the idea of checking with my cat. I don't know if Fatou would want me to do something else than feed him and keep his litter box clean.

    I have a problem with saying no: how do you say "no" to yourself? I am always giving myself new projects (currently I have around 15 projects, I'll be writing a post about "this" soon).

    Cheers,

    Ruben

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      Yeah, the only antidote I've found for saying no to new projects is a daily habit to work on my projects for 30 mins, each, every day. You can't carry more than 2-3 at the most if you do that.

      • I'm into something like 15 projects (thesis, language learning, programming, draft of an article, blogs I manage). I try to do 30 minutes of "some" of them daily, and cycle.

        • ryanwaggoner says:

          I have a few little side things that I hack on from time to time, but those really aren't a problem, because they're not taking up hardly any mental space and I don't *really* care about them. The problem projects are the ones that encroach on each other. For those, the 30-mins-per-day rule has been helpful.

  4. Mike Lewis says:

    I had a problem with saying no to my manager and also the managers from other teams when they wanted my help.

    I fixed it by making a giant list of everything I had to do and prioritised it with my manager. When he asked me to do something new, I asked him where it should go on the list. When the other managers asked me to do something, I told them to talk to my manager. He then worked out its priority.

    • ryanwaggoner says:

      I love this…I have a mental picture of a giant easel with your items on there. Probably in Google Docs or something in reality, but a giant physical list would be nice :)

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