No is such a powerful word, and yet few of us seem to know how to use it. We gracefully accept additional work, commitments and obligations, then spend our energy either trying to improve our time management to fit it all in or stressing about the fact that we will never have enough time to do it all.

Instead of focusing our efforts on getting it all done, here are three ways to say no and save our energy.


Flexing our no muscles might be difficult at first. The best thing to do to get started is to boldly say no to some simple asks. For example, try saying no to coffee in the break room without an apology or circuitous explanation. This can be helpful in a few ways.

First, by confining our response to a simple "no, thanks" we can practice getting comfortable with the empty space that follows. (You know that space, the one we fill with excuses, explanations and apologies.)

Second, by keeping it definitive, we are making it clear to the requestor where we stand and embracing the power of the response. Third, by letting the no stand as is and moving on to something else, we underscore both the response and our lack of flexibility. This provides helpful practice for times when we need to say no to something with more implications than a simple cuppa.

Behind door No. 3

Another way to say no that also provides a handy stepping-stone to saying no to more challenging requests, is with a backwards yes. This is when we say yes but what we are really saying is “no, but.”

This approach can be particularly handy when a colleague asks for assistance we cannot provide.

For example, a peer asks for help screening applicants. Instead of saying yes and staying up late looking at resumes through a tired, resentful lens, try telling her no with a proposed solution.

These solutions help us defer, refer or reject and can be used interchangeably. In other words, defer: yes, I would be happy to help but am unable to until later in the week.

Or, refer: no, I cannot but my intern probably could, shall I ask? Finally, reject: I would be happy to but I cannot, please check with me next time and hopefully my schedule will allow it.

I can’t turn left

Some of us believe we are incapable of saying no. Others can practice the above steps yet are unable to take the next step to delivering the no that allows us freedom on the weekends, regular hours during the week or one less WENUS to worry about. In such cases, we can invoke experts to our cause.

For example, why not tell our boss that we are trying to be more like Steve Jobs and increase our focus by saying no. Or that to increase our resourcefulness, we are becoming a minimalist; and one of the most important things on the path to doing more with less is to say no.

Alternatively, we can drop that we are reading a leadership book and, in it, Warren Buffett is quoted as noting that really successful people say no to almost everything.

The bottom line is that just because we can do something does not mean we should do it. Whether we quote these "no" experts or just refer to them for inspiration, we will all be better employees and leaders if we can learn to say no and redirect the energy we would use to avoid saying no toward the things to which we want to say yes.