Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy”

Tool #6: Learn to Say No

This is an edited excerpt from Ease: Strategies to Manage Overwhelm in Times of “Crazy Busy” by Eileen Chadnick. Reprinted with permission of author. All rights reserved. Ease is available from most major online book retailers. See more at

Estimated reading time: about 2 minutes


Are you addicted to the yes habit? “Addicted to yes” is a phrase I refer to when someone defaults to an automatic yes when there is a choice, and even a good reason, to say no. Work life is busy, and there is likely no shortage of requests to take on extra projects, join a volunteer committee, or chair the next fundraising event.

Saying yes to everything is unreasonable. Yet all too often, many of us respond reflexively and almost unconsciously from habit. Or we might be conscious of our yes habit, but we say yes begrudgingly. Our inner voices tell us that we must say yes or else there will be repercussions. We conjure up images of disapproval and disappointment; we don’t want to rock the boat, so we agree in order to keep the peace. These inner voices, when unchecked, can drive our choices and actions in unproductive ways that don’t serve us. Too much yes can lead to overload, fatigue, and suboptimal performance.


The Story at a Glance

A client I will refer to as Karla is quite an exceptional woman. She handles a large department of thirty; is a dedicated mother, a wife, and a friend to many; and also has a robust volunteer life. She is capable, smart, and generous. When I met her to explore coaching, one area that she felt she could use some help in was learning to say no. A prime example was related to her volunteer role at her church. Karla acknowledged that her contribution was valued and appreciated, but the requests for support were starting to become more than she had bargained for. She wanted to say no to some of the requests but didn’t know how—and she felt bad about saying no. So instead, she started to avoid going to church. The avoidance strategy wasn’t working. Not only was she missing her church experience, but she was also still getting requests via email and phone.


When I asked her what stopped her from saying no to some of those requests, Karla explained she felt guilty doing that and wondered if she’d be disappointing people. She also didn’t know quite how to say no without compromising the relationship.

Karla had some limiting beliefs related to saying no. Her automatic yes habit was compromising her emotional well-being. In a nutshell, by not saying no when it mattered, Karla’s volunteer role was becoming a good thing gone bad.


We worked together on this issue, and Karla said learning when and how to say no was one of the most powerful lessons of our time together. This new ability gave her confidence to assert herself in many situations beyond the church and allowed her the freedom to create a better balance with her work, volunteer life, and personal pursuits.


The Advice

Learn to manage your reflexive yes habit, and say no when it counts. Saying no is difficult for many people. But often, the roadblock starts with oneself. Once we recognize our limiting beliefs, we can then more appropriately say no when it matters. It is also important to learn how to appropriately say no.


Make It Work for You


Discern and challenge your limiting beliefs. Become aware of the internal conversations and thoughts that prompt you to say yes. Do you feel guilty saying no? Do you fear you will damage the relationship or be thought less of? Are there other reasons? Listen in to the dialogue your inner voice is having. Then assess which of your beliefs are valid and which can be considered limiting beliefs. For instance, thoughts such as I am wrong for saying no; they will like me less might be limiting beliefs. However, thoughts such as I want to say no but don’t know quite how to say it are valid obstacles that you can overcome by learning some helpful communications skills.

Determine your boundaries. It will be hard to say no to others unless you are clear on your priorities and boundaries. For example, you might have established a priority to spend a certain amount of time with your family, and a boundary might be an amount of time that you are willing to give to a particular pursuit. Once you’ve established and validated with yourself your priorities and boundaries, use them as an internal compass to help you determine when to say no on a case-by-case basis.

Recognize your triggers. Sometimes it is easy to say no to certain people and situations and more difficult with others. Learn to notice your personal triggers so that you can self-manage those times you are most apt to go into a yes autopilot mode.

Pause when necessary. Learn to pause before automatically saying yes. Buy yourself a few moments to collect your thoughts (e.g., “Let me get back to you in a few moments,” or another appropriate time frame).

Learn how to appropriately convey no. Once you’ve broken the habit of automatically saying yes, it is also important to learn how to say no appropriately.


Here are few more tips on specifically how to say no.


  • Acknowledge the request before you say no: “Thank you for inviting me to this opportunity. I appreciate this offer to join the committee, but I can’t at this time because …
  • Share your reason, and speak from a voice of responsibility when appropriate: “I would like to help on this project, but if I took this on, I would be jeopardizing my other work priorities as per my other committed projects.
  • Make another offer that is doable for you: “While I can’t take this project on at this time, I’d be happy to offer you a few ideas and thoughts that may be useful or suggest some other people you might want to approach.”
  • Show empathy: “I get that this is important to you and that you are in a tough spot, but I’m not in a good position to take this on right now.”


  • Be dependable:I would take this on only if I knew I could do the work to the standard you need. At this time, I wouldn’t be able to give the necessary time or focus, so I’d rather be honest with you up front.”


Learning to say no is an assertiveness skill and part of the spectrum of emotionally intelligent competencies. It might take a bit of practice. In the next week, notice those situations that call for a no, and see if you can catch yourself in the moment before you say yes automatically. Practise the exercises as per the instructions above, and afterwards, reflect and ask yourself the following questions: How did that go? What did I do well? What can I improve? What was the reaction? How much of the initial reactive angst was my own worrying versus genuine issues? What did I learn?


Over time, you will notice a new habit emerge—one where you can appropriately assert yourself and say no with confidence, empathy, and diplomacy.

The Pay-Off

Learning to say no at the appropriate time is an emotionally intelligent way to handle overload.


  • You will manage your workload and avoid the risk of taking on more than you can handle.
  • You will maintain good relationships without having to be a yes person.
  • You will earn the respect of others, as saying no when it is appropriate gives others confidence in your ability to determine your limits.
  • You will increase your confidence; learning to say no can boost your efficacy and leadership.


About the Author: Eileen Chadnick (@Chadnick) is Author of Ease: Manage Overwhelm in Times of ‘Crazy Busy’. She is a certified executive and leadership coach; a communications pro (20+ years of experience) and principal of Big Cheese Coaching and Chadnick Communications in Toronto. Eileen draws from the science of positivity, leadership, neuroscience, emotional intelligence – and Conversational Intelligence®(C‐IQ®) in her work as a coach, consultant, trusted advisor, and facilitator.