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Why you can — and should — say 'no' more at work

Carol Chan is a writer for BUILT BY GIRLS, which prepares the next generation of female and non-binary leaders to step into their power and break into their careers. WAVE is the backbone of BUILT BY GIRLS: it’s a 1:1 matching program that connects high school and college students with top tech professionals across the country. For more information and to sign up check out

This year, students and professionals alike learned what it’s like when your work life and home life become mixed so thoroughly it’s difficult to say where one ends and the other begins.

It’s been crucial to learn to set boundaries, allow yourself to log off, and value your own mental health. Because many of us are always home, it may seem like saying no to a request from a coworker or manager is impossible. Whether you’re an intern, new hire, or a seasoned professional, it can be difficult to vouch for your time and well-being at work, especially when you have so little distance from work while at home.

Here’s a secret: Saying no at work doesn't always require the words “no.” You can protect your time and mental health without flat-out saying no to a superior. Here are four tips for the next time you’re in this situation:

(Photo: Thought Catalog on Unsplash)
It’s been crucial to learn to set boundaries, allow yourself to log off, and value your own mental health. One way to do this is to know when to say "no" at work. (Photo: Thought Catalog on Unsplash)

Realize your power

You’re getting approached for work because you’re showing output and your talent and skills are being recognized. That is a win. (If you’re twiddling your thumbs all day, it may be a sign that you can ask for more or more challenging work.)

So first, recognize that you are offering value to the team and you should take ownership of that achievement. Don’t be afraid that your reputation will be tainted if you push back on a project.

Define the priorities

You should always prioritize projects based on factors like the timeline and business impact, but oftentimes, it’s also your manager’s job to prioritize tasks for you.

Next time, try to say: “Hey, I have these four projects on my plate this week. I think Project A is the priority and it’s going to take me at least two days to complete it. There’s a good chance that ‘Project B’ may not be done this week. Does this feel right in terms of priorities?”

Don’t always commit right away

When you already have too much on your plate, but a team member says “you can do this by Friday, right,” take a beat. Breathe! Instead of saying yes on autopilot, try responding with: “Can I get back to you on that? I have a few things on my list, and I want to give you a realistic timeline.”

Or if it’s in a group meeting, try: “Hey, that sounds exciting. Can we talk separately about next steps after this meeting?” And always, always follow up and explain your workload priorities.

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Be honest

This has been an increasingly difficult year for everyone. Be honest with your manager with what is happening in your life. If you are shouldering personal stress and work stress, you are likely to burn out quicker and no one wants that.

Let them know what is going on with you and what you need to get your best work done. That could be a day off, extended deadlines, or just a little more consideration when assigning more responsibilities.

Contrary to what we’ve been taught, saying “no” is actually a statement about valuing your time and your impact to the team. When you are constantly working against tight deadlines and juggling multiple projects at once, you are not producing your best work. Give yourself space and time to put your best foot forward – your manager will appreciate you for that.

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