Defending Your Time Without Sounding Like a Jerk

The following is a guest post by Kelly Gurnett of Cordelia Calls It Quits.

If you regularly read time management blogs, you probably already know the importance of standing up for your time – saying no when you’re overbooked, refusing to put out other people’s fire drills, avoiding the time traps of a standard office environment.

But sometimes you find yourself at a loss for words.  One of your favorite coworkers is pleading for a favor. Or your kid’s PTA leader really needs you to bake three dozen cookies for the bake sale (“Come on, it’s for the kids!”). You don’t want to come across as rude or disagreeable, but you simply can’t say yes to everything.

So, how do you defend your time without coming across as a jerk? Try using these polite, but effective, phrases:

“Let me check my schedule and get back to you on that.”

One of the easiest ways to get roped into something is when you find yourself cornered. It’s hard to say no to someone who’s waiting with clasped hands for your response. Give yourself a little breathing room by saying you need to check your availability.  It’s a perfectly reasonable request – even if you know full well that your answer will be no.

That seems a little sneaky, I know, but some people are difficult to refuse in person. We all know that friend who will try everything to plead, cajole, or guilt-trip us into changing our minds, no matter how many excuses we give. Sometimes it’s easier to turn them down with a polite call-back to say, “I’m sorry, I’ve checked and I’m afraid I just can’t do it.”

“I’ll add that to my list.”

You’re not saying “no,” but you’re also not saying “I’ll jump on this immediately.” There’s nothing wrong with letting someone know you’ll get around to their project as soon as your schedule permits. If they need it sooner, they’ll have to ask someone else.

“When do you need this by?”

Just because someone dumped something on your desk in a frenzy doesn’t mean it’s necessarily urgent. If you ask them to pinpoint a definite due date, you might find out that report they want doesn’t have to be turned in till the end of the month, which is doable for you. Get clear on the expectations for a project and you can juggle your own priorities better.

“I don’t have an opening until [Friday/next week/etc.]. Would that be OK?”

You win agreeability points by expressing a desire to make this work, while at the same time letting the other person know the terms you’re able to work on. Again, if those terms don’t work for the requester, they’ll need to find someone else to ask – but as least you’ll come across as cooperative.

“What do you need me to do?”

Some people like to unload their problems in one big, breathless rant and then wait for you to jump in with solutions and offers of help. Instead, pin them down as to what exactly they want you to do in this situation. This also helps defend your time by cutting down on the long, rambling backstory some people feel obliged to give before asking for a favor.

“I also have X, Y, and Z on my plate. Which of those projects would you like me to postpone for this?”

Some things you can’t really refuse, like when your boss hands you a big project (you’re kind of paid to do what he asks). But you have a right (and really, an obligation) to let him know the other priorities you’re juggling and ask his executive decision on how best to manage them.

If the other projects are also things he’s given you, he can tell you which ones aren’t as urgent. If you work for several supervisors who give you conflicting projects, let them know when a conflict occurs so that they can work out between themselves whose project takes priority. You’re not being selfish by asking this – you’re just trying to do your job effectively.

“I’m sorry I can’t help, but you might want to check with Joe.”

Be careful with this one – you shouldn’t use it just to foist work off on someone else. But if you know for a fact that it’s something Joe has knowledge about/time for/an interest in, it doesn’t hurt to provide the requester with a helpful alternative.

“I afraid I can’t do this, but I could help you with…”

Maybe you can’t bake those three dozen cookies for the bake sale, but you’d have time next month to help with the wrapping paper drive. Or maybe you can manage to turn out one dozen, if someone else can do the other two. Offering to help with part of the problem, to help in a different way, or to help at a later time enables you to lend a hand, but on your own terms.

Question: Do you have any other tactful phrases to use when defending your time?

27 thoughts on “Defending Your Time Without Sounding Like a Jerk

  1. Hi Craig,

    Artfully done here 😉 Tactful, but firm.

    Fearing criticism causes most to be aversive, stating open-ended questions which always cause one to waste time. 

    I work off a clock. When time has elapsed, on to the next task. Sometimes I go over, but I am pretty strict in this area. Same deal with conversations, like those mentioned above. Either I have time for it, or I don’t, and I usually have no issues telling an individual so.

    Thanks for sharing Craig!


    1.  We definitely need to guard our time, because there are a million people and things that will try to steal bits of it we’re not prepared to give away.  I see it every day at my own job: people who are overworked, overstressed, and still keep taking on more because they don’t know how to draw the line.

      I’ve been very careful about employing the above phrases to defend my time, and although sometimes things still get crazy, I find myself overall far more relaxed (and able to properly concentrate on the task at hand) than many of my coworkers. 

      You just have to be willing to stand up for yourself.  Really, your best work requires that you do.

  2. I love “I’ll add that to my list.” It’s really challenging to say ‘no’ sometimes, especially when you’re like me and LIKE being involved in a wide variety of different projects ALL the time. These are great tips! 

    1. There’s nothing wrong with being involved in lots of things at once.  I’m a clinical multitasker–I just find it more interesting/fun to have several things percolating at the same time.  The key to keeping it fun (and productive), though, is knowing where to draw the boundary lines (with other people, and sometimes also with yourself!)

  3. Great ideas. Thank you! I realized last year that I needed to guard my workout time with my life, or I would never get any exercise. When people asked me to volunteer or do something for them during my scheduled work out I would simply say, “I have an appointment.” The appointment was my kickboxing class, but they didn’t need to know it. I found that if they knew I was saying “no” to their more important activity in order to go to the gym, they would judge me. “I can’t believe she would go to the gym over helping in her child’s classroom!” Gasp! 

    1. Good for you!  Describing things you’ve blocked out for yourself as “appointments” is genius.  No one needs to know the specifics, just that you’ve already got that time booked.  And your “me” time is every bit as important as any other obligation.

  4. Thanks for the post. Great thoughts here. One of the approaches I use is to ask people to send me an email reminder/request so that I can have a record of it. Most times it’s not important enough to them to remember and thus solves the issue for me.

    1. Yes, this has been effective for me too, Jon.

      I also have the added benefit of having a boss that works off-site and has given me the permission (and blessing) to say to people that request my help, “You’ll have to run that by Barry first. If he okay’s it, I’m your man.” Nine times out of ten the request dies there because it’s more hassle than it’s worth to them to have to *gasp* actually go through protocol. 🙂

  5. Great post! I think a straight up but polite “i’m really sorry i can’t do this at the moment, my time won’t allow”. I’ve discovered instances & people who prefer a more blatant / less tact response. it helps to when you know those making a request…

    1.  Good point:  Some people are perfectly fine with a simple, straight answer and don’t require any further explanation.  (You’re very lucky when you find those people.)  🙂

  6. Here’s a tip: if they give you something to do that’s due on Friday and you get it done in Tuesday, don’t deliver it until Friday. And if they ask the status of it in Wednesday, tell them you’re working on it and will have it by Friday. If you want to know the wisdom of this advice, deliver it on Wednesday and see what will happen.

    1.  It’s so sad, but that is a truism in today’s corporate culture.  So often it feels like the faster, better workers are “rewarded” by being given even more deadlines and projects to take on, while mediocre workers unfairly get away with doing less.  The resulting tendency to drag out your work (whether to save yourself from this burden or to fill a slow work day) is one of the many, many reasons I’m a very vocal advocate of the Results-Only Work Environment (R.O.W.E.).

Comments are closed.