Learning when and how to say no - Jo Alcock Consulting
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Learning when and how to say no

Learning when and how to say no

I’m very fortunate to be in the position where I am able to get involved in a number of professional activities – committee work, presenting at conferences, publishing articles etc. I really enjoy these activities and like to be involved in the profession both for my own personal development and to help others; it can be very rewarding.

However, sometimes you have to say no to things. It might be something that you don’t feel capable of doing (or you know someone else could do a far better job); it might be that it’s something you’re not as passionate about as your other commitments (or maybe even something you don’t agree with or have ethical issues with); or it may simply be that you can’t fit everything in. Laura wrote an excellent post recently about prioritising activities and finding time for yourself – something I have recently come to realise is incredibly important. I’ve had to think recently about my priorities to help me manage my time effectively and ensure I have time to do the activities which are important to me, and I thought I’d reflect on this process.

So how do you know when to say no?

This decision over whether to say yes or no is relatively straight forward if it’s something you definitely want to do or definitely don’t want to do, but if you’re anything like me it’s often not that simple. As I’m relatively new to the information profession I’m still figuring out what it is I’m really passionate about. There’s so much I enjoy doing and I want to push the boundaries and try new experiences to challenge myself, so knowing what to prioritise is tricky.

In the past I have done lists of pros and cons for each option, which works in some situations. I tend to weight the reasons as some arguments may be much stronger than others.

Sometimes, I listen to my instinct, and I’m trying to do more of that. By nature I’m a planner, but I don’t have strict plans as I think it’s important to be flexible and open to new opportunities. I like to think of myself as a rational, logical person but this needs to be balanced with the emotional side of things. Sometimes I have a good feeling about something (or a bad feeling about something), and that definitely plays a part in my decision making. I know that if I’m really excited about something I’ll make time for it, but agreeing to something I’m not sure about can be a massive burden.

If it’s still a yes or maybe after weighing up pros and cons and listening to my instinct, I take a critical look at my schedule. This is often the crunch point. My work often blends into my professional activities in my free time, but they both need high levels of concentration during certain periods. Although I keep them on separate (electronic) calendars, I have them both displaying on my iPhone and iPad. That way I can see at a glance what commitments I have and what preparation I will need. For particularly busy periods of time I use Gantt charts to map out my activities. I’m always overly cautious in this – I allocate more time than I think I will need to allow for unforeseen circumstances. If its looking like a busy period and I’m not jumping at the chance to say yes to the opportunity and trying to rearrange things to fit it in, then it’s probably not a good idea to say yes. If it’s a particularly busy period, sometimes I have to say no to opportunities that I would have loved to get involved with, but simply can’t commit time to.

How do you actually say no?

This can be even more difficult than coming to the decision not to do something. Knowing what it’s like from the other side of the fence (through organising events), I like to follow some general rules:

  • Always keep in touch to keep the organiser/editor in the loop – even if you haven’t come to a decision yet or are not sure if you can fit it in, let the organiser know where you stand
  • Be honest about your decision and the reasons you came to that decision – if you come up with an excuse that you think is a nicer way of saying no, you’re not really doing anyone any favours. The organiser may try to change things to fit your requirements, which would be a waste of their time if it’s simply something you’re not interested in or can’t commit to
  • If appropriate, offer an alternative option – maybe a slight change in topic or a different timescale perhaps. Obviously it may not be possible to accommodate this, but it might be something that could be negotiated
  • If you know someone else who might be more suitable, recommend them to the organiser/editor – they can then decide if the alternative person would be appropriate and follow it up if so
  • Most importantly, be professional and polite in your response – I know that’s common sense but if you are doing this by email, it can easily be misinterpreted. Read through the text a few times to make sure it couldn’t be taken out of context or offend the organiser/editor
  • I think I’m starting to learn more about my priorities and to spot which opportunities most closely align to what I enjoy doing and what my strengths are, and I’m also improving my time management skills (though still need to work on fitting in the non-work, non-professional stuff like crafts and spending time with family and friends).

    Do you have any other tips for learning when and how to say no to things?

  • Paula Short
    Posted at 14:04h, 21 June Reply

    VERY important to remember self!

  • Sarah Wolfenden
    Posted at 17:52h, 17 July Reply


    I liked this post and I think I may come back to it occasionally. I have found myself saying yes to lots of things partly due to going through the Chartership process (every little helps – right!) and partly because I don’t want to miss anything. It’s important to take a step back every now and again to take stock. My tip is to breathe deeply once a week!

    • Jo Alcock
      Posted at 19:50h, 17 July Reply

      Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment. That is an excellent tip – I’m trying to take time off in the evenings more which I hope to be able to do more of when I submit my dissertation. It’s very true though, you need time for yourself. Over the past couple of years I have been much the same as you – taking on more and more things, but there comes a point where you have to evaluate extra things very carefully. Good luck with your chartership! 🙂

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