Say “no” more often as a graduate – here’s why

You’re a graduate, snowed under at work, already struggling to meet existing demands on your time. A colleague approaches your desk and kindly asks if you can complete a task for them. You can feel the internal conflict, and want to say “no”, but just can’t.

Have you ever said “yes” to someone, knowing you’d rather say “no”, and then immediately resented yourself for doing it?

In this article I outline why it’s intuitively so hard to say the word “no” as a graduate. I’ll also explain why it’s so important that we learn to say “no” more often, supported by quotes from Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and Tony Blair. Finally, I conclude by detailing how to tactfully say “no”, enabling you to escape the regret we feel when we say “yes”, knowing we’d have been better saying “no”.

Why it’s hard to say “no

If you find it hard to say “no”, you’re not alone. It’s something I’ve battled with in my personal life, as well as my professional one.

As a graduate, it’s even harder! You’re the new kid on the block, and almost everyone has more experience, knowledge and seniority. 

Here are a few reasons that explain why we find it hard to say no:

We hate conflict

Have you ever had an argument with someone, and immediately after you feel terrible? Maybe you’ve called someone out on their behaviour, and they’ve struck back in an aggressive manner that’s hurtful.

We don’t like others being critical of us. That pain sticks with us, and as humans, we’re wired to avoid pain and seek pleasure. If we’ve had negative experiences in the past, we can take this with us into the future and become conflict avoidant.

The healthline defines being conflict avoidant as “being afraid of possible disagreements at all costs.”

We’re conditioned not to go against authority

Do you remember what happened if you didn’t say “yes” when a teacher asked you to do something? You were punished. What about if you said “no” to your parents? Again, punished. 

When I rebelled authority as a kid, I was most likely in the wrong. However, the conditioning sticks around, and it’s not always useful in a professional setting as a graduate.

For example, if your parents told you to keep your hands off the hob when food was cooking, that’s useful. Contrastingly, if someone more senior at work asks you to take on some work when you’re already snowed under, it may be beneficial to say “no”.

We want to fit in, and be accepted

We are inherently programmed to need to ‘fit in’ and be ‘accepted’.

After all, if our ancestors didn’t ‘fit in’, they’d be kicked out of the tribe and their chances of survival dropped to almost zero! Even if they managed to find food, they’d be under constant threat of attack by predators. It was much more effective to fight off these predators as a group. 

Your self-worth is predicated on how others view you

This one resonates most with me. Having recently worked with a life coach, I gained a higher level of understanding around some of my limiting beliefs. As a teenager, I was the subject of some jokes and banter, which made me feel ugly and unworthy. 

As a result, to feel like I’m ‘worthy’, I felt that I needed to achieve high levels of success. While this has driven me on to achieve many of my goals, it’s not healthy. Not only does it limit me from taking riskier opportunities for the fear of losing my ‘status’, it also means that I say “yes” to more workload when it might not be in my best iterests. I believe that if I don’t say “yes”, I’ll be viewed negatively.

Why it’s important to say “no” as a graduate

It’s clear that there’s plenty of reasons that keep us saying “yes”. However, is it doing us graduates more harm than good?

Health & Wellbeing

There’s a saying that goes, “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Basically, if someone is busy, it’s because they are able and willing to work. If you say “yes” to the demands of everyone, guess what, those people are going to keep pushing work your way. This is great if you’ve got the capacity, and it’s not impacting your health and wellbeing, but if it is, it’s a problem.

I’m not suggesting that you say “no” to great opportunities. I’m saying that if your work is impacting your health and wellbeing, then it may be time to consider taking on less work.

Personally, health is my biggest value. If I don’t have my health, my professional life means nothing to me. As such, my health and wellbeing are prioritised above my work. That means ensuring that I have time to exercise, meditate, stretch and enjoy my hobbies.

Recently I felt overwhelmed and was coming home and falling asleep on my sofa. I wasn’t exercising, stretching, meditating and had no energy or drive to pursue my hobbies.

I’m a big believer in living your life, and making the most of your time on earth, so I had some serious mental conflict.

Fortunately, my work became more manageable and I got my balance back. Had I not, I would’ve had to have a conversation with my supervisor around my workload. If you’ve got a good human being as a leader, they’ll understand, and look to help you. If not, it might be worth looking elsewhere.

“Focusing is about saying no.”

Steve Jobs

Personal Objectives

Personal objectives are those important goals you, along with your supervisor, set yourself at the start of the year. These are the objectives, which, if smashed out of the park, lead to promotions and pay rises. When prioritising work, these objectives are the ‘guiding light’. When deciding whether to say “yes” or “no”, personal objectives help us make the correct call. Will this help me towards my objectives? 

“Keep in mind that you’re always saying “no” to something.”

Stephen Covey

If the answer is “yes” then it’s worth doing. If the answer is “no”, then we need to seriously consider why we’re doing it.

As an example, you might be a graduate working in an engineering team, responsible for managing projects. A colleague approaches you to organise an upcoming work BBQ (your a graduate, and an easy target), something completely unrelated to your personal objectives. 

By taking this on, it’s taking away time that you could be using to focus on your personal objectives. 

You may be thinking that by saying “no” you’re being selfish. This is just bullshit talk in your mind! We need to be selfish. Nobody else is living our lives for us. If you’re not working towards your personal objectives, who is? 

This quote from Stephen Covey comes from his best selling book, ‘7 Habits of Highly Effective People‘, a book that has transformed my life.

“Effective management is putting first things first. While leadership decides what “first things” are, it is management that puts them first, day-by-day, moment-by-moment.”

Stephen Covey

Relationships

Up until last year I was both single and lived alone. Working evenings and weekends wasn’t an issue, so long as it wasn’t impacting my health and wellbeing. After all, nobody else was relying on me.

In January of 2020, that all changed (just in time for lockdown) and I found a partner, who now lives with me. Now, if I choose to work evenings and weekends, it has an impact on our relationship. Because I’m working more, I’m not doing my fair share of household tasks like cooking and cleaning. If I’m working weekends, then it impacts our ability to pursue shared passions.

The majority of us graduates don’t have to worry about being parents yet, but that time will come. I can’t wait to be a father and will greatly value the time I get to spend with my kids. If saying “no” more often means I get to spend more time with them, that’s a no-brainer for me. 

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.”

Warren Buffet

How to say “no” as a graduate

Saying “no” is important, and tough, especially when that person we’re saying “no” to is someone more senior (most often the case as a graduate), or someone whose relationship we value. However, there’s a saying that goes, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it”, and saying “no” is no different.

By delivering the “no” tactfully, we can make the delivery of our message much easier. I find it almost impossible to say, “no, sorry I can’t take that on”. I’d feel rude and dismissive.

Contrastingly, I find it much easier to say, “Hi David, can you let me check my workload and priorities, and I’ll get back to you?”. By doing this, I lift the pressure off my shoulders. When I’m in the ‘moment’ and it’s just me, the other person, and awkward silence if I don’t say anything, I feel a habitual “yes” on the tip of my tongue.

Once removed from the situation, I don’t feel the same pressure to say “yes”. I can consciously look at my workload, my goals, and my priorities and then make an objective decision.

As promised, I’ll then follow up with an email, or call, saying, “Hi David, I’ve reviewed my workload, and there’s some high priority actions that I need to complete, so I’m unable to take this on at the moment. Sorry.”

Sometimes it will be your boss asking you to get after something, as opposed to another colleague. In this instance you might feel like you have to say “yes”. It’s not the case. Here’s how I respond to my boss if I know that by saying “yes” I’ll be negatively impacting one or more of these:

  • personal objectives
  • health and wellbeing
  • relationships

“Hi Louise (my boss). With regards to that task you asked me to complete, where does that sit on the list of my priorities?”

If they respond with, “It’s pretty far down.”

I’ll respond by saying, “Ok, I’ll park it for now and focus on completing the higher priority actions.”

They’ll either respond with:

  1. “Understood, I’m ok with that. Thank you for making me aware of your other priorities.”
  2. “Understood, unfortunately I need it completed sooner. I’ll reassign it to someone else in the team.

If I had instead instinctively said “yes” despite knowing it would impact other important areas of my life, I’d be full of resentment and regret. Additionally, by taking work on that I don’t have the capacity for, the chances of me delivering quality work are slim. Finally, if I don’t deliver on time, my boss will question my ability to manage my work. 

Ironically, the stress we think we’ll encounter by saying “no” doesn’t even compare to the toll it takes on us by saying “yes”. 

If my boss had said it was a higher priority task, I’d respond with, “Ok, which of my other tasks would you like me to put aside while I get after this one?” Your boss will be happy that you’re managing your work effectively, as opposed to taking it on and then delivering it late because you took on too much.

Saying “no” is something I still struggle with, even after knowing how important it can be. It’s not intuitive, feels rude and confrontational. However, even if we can say “no” just a little more often, we’re buying ourselves more time to commit to our personal objectives, health and wellbeing, and relationships.

Tony Blair – “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”

Tony Blair

I hope this article will help you as a graduate say “no” more often. If you’ve got any techniques you’ve got to say “no” more often, then please leave a comment below to help others in the graduate community.

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2 comments

  • Brilliant article. I graduated in 2014 and this hugely resonated with me. I wish someone had given me this advice back then!

    One technique I’ve used to say no with some success is to say something along the lines of, “I’d love to be able to take on this opportunity, but…” or “I really wish I could say yes, but…”. This at least shows a willingness and positive attitude, but creates a natural and less direct way to say “no”!

    • This is some excellent insight Rob, thank you for sharing this. I agree, we don’t want to look like we’re not willing. It’s a fine balance. The way you’ve proposed addresses this.

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