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How Saying “I Don’t” At Work Can Change Your Life

How Saying “I Don’t” At Work Can Change Your Life

My calendar is jam-packed — it’s not unusual for me to work 12 hour days. As an entrepreneur, there is always something I “should” or “could” be doing. This isn’t a complaint, but a declaration that my life is full, busy, and can, at times, make me feel a little over-extended. I am invited to dozens of networking events, happy hours, brunches, awards ceremonies, etc., and as much as I care about each one, I simply can’t attend all of them. While I might be perceived as someone who is “everywhere,” I have a confession to make: I’m one person, who hasn’t yet received a government grant to clone myself… working on that!

I recently had the pleasure of speaking to a group of female leaders at Illumina about career growth and intrepreneurship. One of the session participants asked an important question about saying “no,” as she was trying to elevate her status in the organization. She had recently been promoted and, while her duties had changed, her colleagues still sent her work, questions, and opportunities that corresponded to her old position — she wanted to know the best way to politely decline.

I shared a finding published in the Journal of Consumer Research stating that saying “I don’t” when declining an offer (“I don’t have time, I don’t have the bandwidth, I don’t accept offers for that amount, etc.) was far more effective than saying “I can’t.” People who said “I can’t” succumbed to temptation 61% of the time, while those who said “I don’t” gave in only 36% of the time. In fact, “I don’t” was even more powerful than just saying “no” by nearly a 50% margin. In short, saying “I don’t” is psychologically empowering, while saying “I can’t” is psychologically draining.

I shared this practice with the group and gave her a sample response: “Thank you for reaching out to me but I don’t oversee this function any longer; let me introduce you to the new employee that does.” Not only were we able to utilize “I don’t,” but we also retrained her colleague to seek out the new employee.

I often hear how difficult it is for people, especially women, to say “no” and I witness the ramifications of this weakness: business owners end up in a doomed partnership (that they knew were a bad idea from the get-go) or friends burn through their weekends because of a multitude of obligations (birthday parties, baby showers, caring for an ailing neighbor, etc.) It’s time to say “no” or better yet, “I don’t (fill in the blank),” for your own sanity and your personal/business’ brand.

Your time is precious. Any minute spent on one thing is time away from something else. It’s imperative to be frugal with your time and to truly ask yourself if you have the bandwidth or desire before saying “yes.” Perhaps you have the time but don’t have the desire? This is when you ask yourself, “what’s in it for me?” Saying “no” is a filter that determines what projects you accept, which events you attend, and what business relationships you choose to form; all of which illustrate your brand. When you are laser focused on your goals, vision, mission, and values, you can better determine where and how you should spend your time.

Remember, this isn’t selfish; it’s a filter. Everyone will gladly take something from you, especially your time, and if you’re a giver, lover, and harmony seeking entrepreneur like myself, you’ll want to attend every event, wedding, baby shower, book launch, and happy hour, but you just can’t (unless you’ve somehow secured a cloning grant).

Try “I don’t...” on for size; trust me, you can’t afford not to!

[Related: The Easiest Way to Add Hours to Your Day]


Felena Hanson is the founder of Hera Hub, a spa-inspired shared workspace and community for female entrepreneurs and author of Flight Club - Rebel, Reinvent, and Thrive: How to Launch Your Dream Business, which provides tools and resources to women in every stage of launching their business. For more information, please visit, and connect with Felena on Twitter, @felenahanson.

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