Setting boundaries at work: The importance of saying no

It can feel great saying “yes” to a boss or colleague who asks for your help. You feel valuable, important, reliable, busy, and so on. Plus, you get a good hit of dopamine. But saying yes too much has negative consequences; it can impact everything from your productivity to your personal well-being. So, in this article, we’re going to explore setting boundaries at work and how to say “no” constructively.

The downside of yes

The reality is you can’t always accomplish everything you would like to. You can end up feeling overworked and exhausted, unable to prioritize your work, all of which leads to burnout. While good intentions can be a never-ending resource, time is not. Attention is not. By saying yes to everything, you are committing to getting none of those things done with the focus and attention they deserve. After all, if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.

This means that you can only truly, effectively say (and mean) yes to something if you say (and mean) no to other things. It’s in saying no that we give power to our yes. Setting boundaries at work can give us the space – the time and attention – to really focus and get the prioritized things done well. 

As Steve Jobs, one of the kings of focus, said: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.

An important note – when we talk about saying no and setting boundaries at work, we mean saying no to the GOOD ideas as well as the bad. Saying no to something you don’t want to do is easy. It’s the sacrifice of saying no to something exciting, something interesting, something potentially amazing that demonstrates the focus you need to have to achieve great things.

Before you say yes

Here’s the hard part – changing habits. Because we’re used to the status quo, saying yes is a habit. You probably don’t even realize that you’re saying yes until the word is out of your mouth. Or you realize you’re saying it, but your default framework is to say yes unless there’s a really good reason to say no. 

We need to flip that on its head. What if your default was to set a boundary unless there were excellent reasons to say yes? This simple shift in how you evaluate an opportunity can provide huge returns for your time and attention.

So, the next time someone asks you for something – for help, to spearhead a project, to join a knitting group, try asking yourself a few questions:

  • Am I the right person?
  • Is this the right time?
  • Do I know enough about this?

Remember that you don’t have to give an answer right away. It’s perfectly fine to say, “let me think about this and get back to you,” especially if you’re newly embarking on your journey of no and are not yet comfortable with the new approach. Setting boundaries at work takes practice!

How to say no and set boundaries at work

The most critical thing to remember is that no is not a dirty word. It’s not even a negative word. It doesn’t mean “I hate you” or “I hate your idea.” It’s a tool that is underused by all but the most successful people. Think of it as your secret weapon, your shield that gives you the time and space to focus on your most important tasks.

Still, saying no and setting a boundary at work takes some getting used to. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

Enact a 24-hour rule

Changing habits starts with being aware of the moments when you make a choice. Having an awareness of the moment and having the ability to make a different decision in that moment are two different things – especially when the status quo feels great in the moment and the new behavior feels scary. Putting in place a rule that you will only agree to something once you’ve thought about it for a day buys you some time to evaluate the options and to think about what you’re going to say.

Say no without saying no

This is a little bit of semantics, but a phrase like “That sounds like a great opportunity, but I can’t this time” can be easier to say just because it doesn’t have “no” embedded in it. If the word itself is scary, look for other ways to get across the same intent.

Provide an alternative

In cases where you aren’t the right person, or it isn’t the right time, offering another option to the person asking can end up being a win-win. For example, “You know, Melissa really excels at creating marketing plans – have you considered reaching out to her?”

Practice with others

We love accountability partners at One TEAM and use them frequently when trying to learn new behaviors and create new habits. Tell your coworkers, friends, and family that you are trying to say yes to fewer things so that you can focus on the things that matter, and ask if they’d be willing to help by reminding you to think things over before committing. We bet that they’ll be up for it and might even join you on the journey of no themselves.

Boundaries for the win

We hope we’ve convinced you that setting boundaries is useful and necessary. According to Warren Buffet, “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” So if you need help on your journey to identify and focus on those truly important things, check out our newest service offering, The Business Value Accelerator. In 16 weeks, we will guide you through prioritization and boundary setting, plus so much more. Learn more about it here.


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