How to say no at work

Learn how to say no at work and reclaim your work-life balance.

It’s demanding, this working mother thing. You’re constantly pulled this way and that, trying to be all things to all people in the finite number of hours you have available to you every day. Sometimes I wonder if I’m much better at saying no to my husband and kids than I am to work demands – which sucks, right? They’re supposed to be the most important thing in our lives, but it’s so easy to get distracted by the place that is paying you the money so you can buy the food and pay the mortgage (and, let’s face it, buy the shoes).

So I’ve been learning lately how to draw clear boundaries and to shout from the metaphorical rooftops that my family is the most important thing in my life. Here are a few tips I’ve gathered along the way. I hope they help you too.

young businesswoman in office talking on the megaphone

1. Decide where your boundaries are and stick to them

Don’t make decision on the fly about whether you’ll work weekends, or take calls after hours, or stay late for meetings. If you have a work calendar, mark it out so you are not available during the times that you have decided on. There is no need to explain to people why you’re not available – you’re just not.

2. Imagine a teenage boy

Okay, bear with me on this one. Katherine Wintsch suggests you imagine the person asking you to do something as a teenage boy who is trying to make out with you (imaging yourself as a teen too, otherwise that could get really murky). Her point is that you need to protect your boundaries and not let them talk you into anything you don’t want to do. And if they buy you a slurpee, be suspicious of their ulterior motives.

3. Forget what people will think of you

I’m sure it will come as no shock to hear people don’t actually care about you or what you’re doing. What they do care about is what they need to get done. So keep the focus on that. If you can’t stay for their 5pm meeting to discuss it, ask them to send you the information you need and tell them you’ll email them some ideas in the morning, or suggest you meet in the morning. Taking an interest in helping them solve their problem is the key to diffusing any attention on what you are and are not doing.

4. Plan ahead

As soon as you hear about sports days, school concerts, parent-teacher meetings, or whatever is important to your family, mark it out in your calendar. You’re not available. Simple.

5. Visualise the alternative

Imagine you’ve said yes to this request. How will that feel when you’re on a conference call on Saturday morning instead of making pancakes with the kids? Shitty, that’s how. Why do that to yourself?


We all want to do a good job and spend quality time with our families. The problem is that you are the only person in the universe who is invested in that particular balancing act FOR YOU.

Nobody at work gives a shit about your work–life balance, no matter what their HR policy says. They are there to make money, and you are there presumably because you’re good at your job and you help them make that money. And, although your family loves you and wants you to enjoy your job, they don’t actually care about the day-to-day operational issues of making it happen.


It’s up to you. What boundaries will you draw?


Want more career posts? Check out:

10 things I know about making a career leap

How to behave at work: don’t be an asshole

The one big lesson Bobbi Brown taught me

5 tips for career success

Written By

Carolyn is the editorial director of Champagne Cartel and a freelance writer. In her spare time she is a long-distance runner, peanut butter enthusiast, and single mum to three incredible humans.


  • I can just imagine the response if I tried this at work. I would be unemployed within seconds. Lovely for those of us who live in an ideal world, but not practical for the rest of us. Also, spare a thought for the people who will invariably have to pick up the slack of those who are the quickest to claim their ‘me-time’.

    • I don’t think there should be any slack for anyone else to pick up – just clear boundaries of what you are paid to do and when you are paid to do it. I’m all for working hard while I’m there and then switching off and spending time with my family.

      • There is, though, sadly. I am the childless member of my work-places who always picks it up, because there is no way of arguing with someone who needs to go to take care of a sick kid, or who has scheduled ‘family time’ in what turns out to be the middle of a crisis without sounding like a bitch. I understand the need for flexibility for families – I just think my need for study leave or even a day off per week is equally important. Childless workers are expected not to want or need ‘me-time’, which strikes me as counter-productive. There needs to be room for me to create clear boundaries as well, but the need for ‘family time’ always seems to trump anything that I consider important. And don’t even start me on the constant working public holidays. I know child-care arrangements are complex, but I have worked every Boxing Day for the last six years.

  • Oh this is fantastic! Thank you, I so needed this! I have no-aphobia hardcore. Can’t say no at work, and then in turn stress out at everyone at home. Not how it should be! Totes taking these tips and giving them a whirl! x

  • This is so good! and gosh I had a chuckle at the teenage boy part 🙂

    As someone without kids I often get the attitude that I have so much more free time and availablity because I’m childless. I realise that is kinda true but it’s kinda not as well. It’s a tough situation for everyone.

    • The teenage boy part made me laugh too Nicole! Of course, we all have demands in our lives, it’s not just about kids. I think it’s important for everyone to draw a line in the sand about their free time. If our employers want to own us body and soul, they’re going to have to pay a whole lot more!

Leave a Reply