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Learning to say “no” when your plate is full

By Daniel Bobinski

Research shows that anywhere from 35 to 60 percent of people have difficulty saying “no” to others. Some people struggle with saying no because of behavioral style, others struggle because of how they were parented. Whatever the reason, if you’re feeling overloaded, overbooked, and overwhelmed, it might help to know that there are ways of saying “no” without saying the word, “no.”

It’s refreshing for many to realize that we don’t have to be at the end of our rope before it’s OK to say no. Nor must we be belligerent or difficult. Learning to say no is a healthy part of managing our activities to maintain – or regain – a sense of sanity. And many of us learn that by saying no to certain things, we can be more productive and effective.

Cognitive Load Theory

In my masters and doctoral work, I studied cognitive load theory, which is the amount of mental resources we can use for working memory. In computer parlance, think “RAM,” or Random Access Memory. It’s a good analogy, because just like computers, humans have a limited capacity when it comes to working memory.

Essentially, internal cognitive load has to do with A) how we think about things, and B) how we process them within our minds. External cognitive load has to do with how we mentally juggle things vying for our attention. When we get too much of either on our plates, our “RAM” gets full, which limits our productivity.

As you might imagine, it’s the external things vying for our attention that overwhelm us the most. And, with today’s multiple communication channels, it’s easy for our cognitive load to get maxed out.

For example, a quick phone call or text message asking for something is easy and makes us more productive, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. I know one administrative assistant whose boss thought nothing of calling or texting her at 10 p.m. so he could get a status update about something he forgot to bring up in a meeting. In essence, he expected his assistant to be available 24/7. Those calls and texts made the boss more productive, but left no time for the assistant’s brain to decompress.

Rather than talk with her boss about this violation of boundaries, the assistant began leaving her cellphone home when she went out, which angered the boss and strained their relationship.

Obviously, this was clearly a work-life boundary violation on the boss’s part, but it was also an example of an employee who didn’t know how to say no.

When to say “no”

Maybe what you’re experiencing isn’t as extreme as what I just described, but maybe it is. Either way, if you’re like most people, your schedule may feel like it’s on the brink of spilling over and you may be experiencing guilt for not keeping up with everything people want you to do.

To truly be effective, we need boundaries as well as good cognitive load management. Both of which require learning when and how to say no. But first, we must know why we are saying no.

Perhaps the best tool in your self-management tool bag is a personal mission statement. This means taking time to reflect on your values and goals. In other words, what is important to you, and why? Creating a short, easily memoizable statement helps guide your decision making, and that includes recognizing when it’s necessary to say no.

Said another way, we should lean toward saying no when something will take us off our intended course, or when the cost outweighs the benefit.

How to say “no”

One problem with saying no is it can come across as abrupt, and that’s a common reason people won’t say it. With that in mind, let me share some alternative ways to say “no.”

One of my favorite ways to say no without saying the word is, “I’m sorry, that’s not going to work for my schedule.” Why does it work? Because people have a difficult time arguing with your schedule. However, if they still apply pressure for you to say yes, you can always say “I’ll look at it a little closer, but right now I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Other phrases include:

  • “I’m sorry, I can’t commit to that right now.”
  • “That is really a bad time for me. I have another priority that requires my attention.”
  • “You know, I’m probably not the best person for that. Have you thought about asking ____?”
  • “Please understand that I’m honored, but can’t right now. Thanks for asking.”
  • “That sounds wonderful, I wish I could make it, but I can’t. Let me know how it works out.”

Even the above phrases can be difficult, because most of us want to be helpful. Also, saying no to something can invoke a fear of missing out on a great opportunity. We might also fear burning a bridge. That’s why it’s important to have a personal mission statement.

Extreme cases

In the past, I’ve coached clients whose bosses have no clue about how much they overload their employees. One technique I’ve suggested is very bold, and can actually backfire, but when clients are on the verge of quitting anyway because they’re so overworked, they’ve used it with success.

The technique is to open your Day-Timer or take out your project list, then ask the boss which deadlines he or she thinks you should adjust to make time for the new task. As I said, it’s a bold move, but this technique has been successful in helping a boss see how busy someone is. One key to its success is doing it tactfully! It’s also not a technique that can be used too often.

Bottom line, if people keep putting stuff on your plate and you’re getting overwhelmed, staying focused on your goals and familiarizing yourself with a few phrases can help you set boundaries to regain your sanity.

Daniel Bobinski, M.Ed. is a best-selling author and a popular speaker at conferences and retreats. For more than 30 years he’s been working with teams and individuals (1:1 coaching) to help them achieve excellence. He was also teaching Emotional Intelligence since before it was a thing. Reach Daniel through his website,



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