How to say ‘no’ and be more productive

Mar 12, 2019 | Sector & policy

Zena Everett will deliver her highly regarded ‘Crazy Busy’ session at next week’s ISE Student Development Conference where she shares a few tips on how to say no at work.

Have you got five minutes? How often are you asked this each day? Once, twice, three times, more? It’s not five minutes though is it?  It’s double that at least.

The biggest issue is the downtime created by the interruption: how long it takes you to get back to what you were doing.

The more complex the task, the more likely you are to give up on it and do something else.  You’ve got an internal meeting anyway in 30 minutes, so no time to tackle something strategic or complicated.

You are far more likely to go back to what’s screaming out in front of you: usually your inbox. You reply to some emails, send a few more, and create another layer of busy work for everyone else.  Don’t forget to CC your boss and the whole department in, to justify your salary!


Workplaces are hard to actually work in

If you find saying “no, I don’t have five minutes” uncomfortable, then you can try hiding. Find somewhere you can’t be seen and switch off your multiple digital channels. There are only so many corners and cubbyholes of course and you have to walk past people to get to them. You can still be hijacked on your escape route.


You might not want to say no, but you need to.

We’ve become addicted to instant gratification. Everyone thinks that their problem is urgent, special and should be everyone else’s problem too. It has become perfectly reasonable to interrupt others to get immediate resolution.

It isn’t reasonable or professional of them. Push back and assert your boundaries. If you respect your own time, other people will respect it too.

We are encouraged to be collaborators, team players, business partners, but most of us are measured and rewarded on output and achievement.  Successful people put their own tasks first.  Niceness is never the top competency at a promotion panel.

Say NO. Offer an alternative, if you must:

  • I’m in the middle of something; I’ll come over to you as soon as I’m done.   
  • I’m busy now, ping me an invite for 2pm and come back then.
  • I’d love to help, but I’m doing this for Jane.  
  • I’m on a tight deadline right now.
  • I’d like to but I simply don’t have the capacity/bandwidth.

Keep your eyes on your own task and don’t take five minutes to explain why you haven’t got five minutes.

If there are persistent offenders then schedule a conversation with them to nip the problem in the bud.  Start with ‘I’ve noticed’, which keeps the conversation neutral.

  • I’ve noticed that you keep coming to me with queries.  Is this something we can discuss in one chunk at the beginning of each day so you can get on with what you need?
  • I’ve noticed that you regularly need information urgently.  How about we get together once a week and plan this, so I can get better quality information to you rather than rushed jobs?
  • I’ve noticed that you keep asking me to check what you’ve done.  Let’s agree performance requirements so you know what is expected of you.
  • I’ve noticed that you keep asking me for the same data. Can I put it somewhere so it is quicker for you to find yourself?

So many opportunities here for sarcasm and passive aggression. Try to avoid the temptation.
If you are a manager, then back up your team when they say no. Train them to deal with time bandits professionally. Lock in uninterrupted times in the calendar so your team can crack on with their priority work.  Experiment with ‘clinics’ when you deal with requests all in one block at scheduled times of the day or week. Your job is to build a productive culture. Constant switching from one task to another means work takes twice as long, with inevitable productivity and well-being consequences.

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