Here’s how to say no. And start out the year on your own terms

Hi there,

Not long ago I asked my Dutch readers to answer a few questions about how they use their time and what role their calendar plays. In no time I got more than 500 replies – a trove of information. 

Emiel and I have held the first series of short interviews based on the answers, and we hope to glean further insights for a new project we’re working on. One of the things we heard a lot: “I’d love to be able to manage my time better each day, but it’s hard to stick to my plan.” Sometimes that’s due to a lack of discipline, but more often it’s a sense of outside pressure that gets us. 

What I also hear a lot is “It’s hard to say no.” And that means other people are deciding how you spend your time.

For me the gamechanger was this: It’s far easier to say no when you can back up your answer. In fact, everything gets easier when you take your own plan as your starting point.

You could say to a coworker, for instance: “Sorry, wish I could help you out. But I’m working on an important presentation at the moment.” 

If it’s your boss doing the asking, you may not have a say in the matter. But be clear that additional work has consequences. You could say something like, “No problem, I’d be happy to help out with those two interviews, but then what would you advise: I’m working on that presentation for next Wednesday at the moment, and if I do the interviews, I won’t be able to finish that. What has priority?”

Saying no more often (and sticking to your guns)

  • An outside query often feels more urgent than it is. I always consider requests to mean once I can fit it in, unless the urgency is made more explicit. And of course it’s good to clarify right away: “Is it ok if I take a look at your question tomorrow afternoon?” You’ll see that’s almost always fine. 

  • Give yourself a chance to think it over. Get used to not immediately saying yes or no to requests, but say “I’ll see if I can fit that in.” That gives you the time you need to come up with a good answer. And that makes saying no a lot easier. 

  • Start small. If you go from always agreeing to everything one day, to guarding your calendar like a terrier the next, you’ll be sure to meet with resistance. As a first step, try finishing what you were working on before picking up the incoming request. “I’m in the middle of something at the moment, I’ll take a look in an hour.” That’s already progress. 

  • Set aside time for extras. If you pack your week’s schedule with wall-to-wall commitments, that’s a guarantee for frustration and stress. Keep some time blocks free, or set aside time for the unexpected. Then you always have some wiggle room to tackle whatever the day throws at you.

So start with a plan. Think of what would make today or this week a success, and put that on your calendar. That’s your basis – use it to help you stick to your own plan. 

Have a good week!


PS Here are some related back issues: