An extra assignment? Sure. Drive the weekly car pool? Why not? Run out to the store real quick? Sure! Saying yes can be a piece of cake, making it easy to end up with way too much to do. That extra stress can lead to exhaustion, and may even make the body more susceptible to illness.

Just Say No — The Takeaway

The reason to say “no” is simple: Being overextended can cause stress, and stress stinks. An overbooked schedule paired with poor time management can cause physical and emotional stress, and one study found that over-commitment was a predictor for blood clotsOvercommitment but not effort-reward imbalance relates to stress-induced coagulation changes in teachers. von Känel, R., Bellingrath, S., Kudielka, B.M. Division of Psychosomatic Medicine, Bern University Hospital (Inselspital) and University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland. Annals of Behavioral Medicine: A Publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 2009 Feb;37(1):20-8. Epub 2009 Jan 30.. Perhaps organizing the office softball league isn’t worth the risk of deep vein thrombosis, eh?

For many Americans, over-commitment at work contributes to stress and poor healthDifferential economic stability and psychosocial stress at work: associations with psychosomatic complaints and absenteeism. Godin, I. and Kittel, F. Département Epidémiologie et Promotion de la Santé, Unité Psychologie de la Santé, Bruxelles, Belgium. Social Science and Medicine 2004; 58(8): 1543-53.. Studies show nearly 70 percent of U.S. employees are stressed and one third are chronically overworked. And the trend to work longer hours has increased nationwide over the past four decades, meaning people miss out on “me” time and its health benefits. But saying “no” to too many responsibilities could help reduce the effects of these stressors.

It’s a cinch for toddlers to say “no,” so why do the rest of us seem to have such a tough time? First off, research suggests we all seem to think we have more time than we actually do (an effect known as “delay discounting”). We also may fear regretting the things we pass up, or getting backlash from someone whose assignment we turn down. Some experts think saying “no” may be especially tough for women, because they (typically) value empathy and sensitivity and tend to be more nurturing.

The first step in the fight against “yes” is to understand the value of “no.” In addition to the health bonuses, saying “no” can open up more time to try new things and let other people take on the job instead. It also means higher priorities get the attention they deserve, resulting in better-quality work— and what employer wouldn’t appreciate that?

But if just plain “no” won’t cut it— for fear of hurting others’ feelings or peeving the boss— try one of these alternatives:

  • A conditional yes. Agree to the parts of a project or assignment that are feasible, but outsource the rest. (“I’d love to research that topic, but I don’t think I can commit to doing the full report.”) Or, adjust the terms of the request to suit what can really get done (“Actually, tomorrow isn’t good for me. Can we plan the holiday party next week?”). A word of warning, though: This technique is still a timid version of no, so reserve it for opportunities that absolutely can’t be turned down.
  • Offer a trade-off. This approach is especially helpful with a supervisor, but can work just as well with family and friends. Before agreeing to something, let the requester know what will have to become less of a priority; he or she may simply say, “Never mind.” (“I know this new assignment is important to you, so which of my current projects should go on the back burner?”)
  • Give an explanation. If a requester understands the reason for a rejection, it’ll usually numb some of the sting. Just be sure to be honest and brief. (“I wish I could pick the kids up today, but I actually have an appointment with a new client.”)


Learn to say “no” to reduce stress.