My Time Management Struggles (Part 2) – The Power of No

Power of No

In my last post on time management I discussed my struggles and journey to reclaim my calendar.  My journey had gotten as far as understanding why I was in a time crisis and developing a method for evaluating current and future time investments. 

Now, I am at the hardest part – getting and keeping things off my plate.  In short, saying “no.”

Saying No is Hard to Do

Many people find it hard to say no.  Below are a few of the many reasons folks find the word “no” challenging.

  1. You are a giving soul.  Helping others makes us feel good so we want to do it when asked.  When you turn folks down, you feel like the Grinch of giving. 
  2. You are duty bound.  You feel obligated to help because of your commitment to the project or your relationship with the person asking.  
  3. You are proving yourself.  You are a classic overachiever and have convinced yourself that anytime you don’t meet a challenge with gleeful abandon, you aren’t fulfilling your purpose. 
  4. You are polite.  Saying no is a form of rejection and you do not want to offend anyone.
  5. You are paying your dues.  You are concerned that you won’t get tapped for future opportunities if you say no.

Do any of the above look familiar?  Each has applied to me at one point or another.  It’s important to realize that underpinning these reasons are guilt (for reasons 1 , 2 and 3) and fear (for reasons 4 and 5).  Equally important to understand is that these concerns are unfounded.  Saying no doesn’t make you a heartless, selfish person who isn’t tapping into their full potential.  You know, the type of person who can watch those SPCA animal cruelty commercials with the Sarah McLachlan backing track (see video at left) and not feel bad.  

And saying no doesn’t mean you won’t get future opportunities.  In fact, when you say yes to everything those with the best opportunities may say no to choosing you as you seem overcommitted.

Where you can turn folks off is in how you refuse.  A callous no can burn bridges and you can come across as unfeeling. 

Saying No the Right Way

How people interpret your no is all in the messaging.  So say no the right way–be respectful, appreciative and, whenever possible, helpful.  Below are a few tips to keep in mind when framing your response. 

  • Beware the “soft yes.”  The point is to say no – a polite no – but no all the same. If you’ve decided to turn a request down, avoid saying things like “I’d need to know about the commitment.”  Do not irritate the other person by dragging out your refusal. 
  • Express gratitude.  Show that you value the opportunity by saying thank you and referring them to another person.  A referral helps demonstrate that you gave serious consideration to the request.
  • Use a personal touch.  If you have a close relationship with the person making the request, pick up the phone.  A phone call gives you the opportunity to convey your sincerity and appreciation, which may fall flat over e-mail.

Here are a few examples from Elizabeth Saunders’s book, The 3 Secrets to Effective Time Investment, on how to deliver a short, but sweet no.

  • I really appreciate the opportunity but don’t have the necessary experience in that area.  I’d be glad to refer you to someone who does. 
  • Given my existing commitments, I wouldn’t be able to take this on and give it the time it deserves.  It’s best if you look for someone who can fully commit to the role.
  • Thank you for thinking of me.  It seems like a wonderful opportunity.  Though I’m afraid I’ll have to decline, I wish you much success on the event.

My “Say No” Results

Using my time priority pyramid I discussed in my earlier post, I evaluated my existing commitments.  Because of my community and work obligations, I wasn’t spending any time on my personal well-being or my relationships.  I needed to scale back on my outside obligations.   Below is a snapshot of my commitments before and after the time priority pyramid.



4 Nonprofit Boards

2 Nonprofit Boards

1 Blog (Blueprint JD)

1 Blog (Blueprint JD)

12 Work Projects

6 Work Projects

2 LL.M Classes

0 LL.M Classes


Letting go of my community obligations was tough as they involved education and youth empowerment, areas I am passionate about.  However, I couldn’t justify my continued involvement when I wasn’t taking care of my health. 

At work, I was spread thin and felt constantly under the gun.  As a result, I didn’t volunteer for weightier work.  I was hampering my own career development.  Thankfully some of my matters simultaneously concluded.  I resolved not to take on additional projects.  Instead of getting my billable hours through variety, I plan to pursue bigger roles on my remaining projects.  Finally, as much as I love school, I don’t have the bandwith to fully commit to an LL.M program.  So, with my last exam, I tabled that endeavor for now.

I’m breathing easier with a lighter load, but my journey isn’t done.  I need a system to ensure I fulfill my current obligations and invest my time wisely going forward.  In my next post, I’ll discus my time management tools. 

Do you have difficulty saying no?  How did you finally get things off your plate?  Please let us know in the comments.



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Melinda Hightower

Melinda Hightower

Founder and Chair at Blueprint JD
Melinda Hightower is passionate about legal diversity, literature and community activism. When she’s not busy earning her keep as an attorney, she operates Blueprint JD, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to building diversity in the legal profession.