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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

How to (Nicely) Say No to an Unwanted Project

When I quit my 9-to-5 job and started my own independent writing and communication consultancy, I thought my days of having to deal with boring, annoying projects were over. As an entrepreneur, I got to pick and choose my own clients, design my own workdays, select my own self-directed goals.

Total freedom and sovereignty, right?


But not quite.

As I’ve learned, four years into the game, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got one boss in the corner office or 1,000 online customers—occasionally, a project you really don’t want to deal with is going to plop into your inbox.

It might be a client asking you to drop everything to help him hit an urgent deadline. (When you explicitly told him you don’t work on weekends.)

It might be a colleague asking you to review a grant proposal she’s about to submit, just to give her your two cents. (“Just 40 pages. Shouldn’t take you long, right?”)

Or it might be a distant relative pleading for your help with a resume, a cover letter, or research for the job hunt.

And when that unwanted project arrives?

It’s imperative that you learn how to say “no”—respectfully, but firmly.

Because without clear communication in place, those kinds of projects will just keep coming, draining your time and energy, wobbling the boundaries around you.

But, as we all know, saying “Um, I don’t want to do that” can be tricky. So, to help you find the right words, here are three scripts to help you say “no” (nicely, of course) for three common scenarios at work.

When the Unwanted Project is Part of Your Job, But You’re Already Overwhelmed With Other Projects

Hey [person’s name],

Thanks for the details and clear instructions. Much appreciated.

Here’s what’s on my to-do list right now:

[Briefly list the top 3-5 projects you’re currently working on, to reiterate your value—and busyness.]

Based on our last conversation, it feels like the projects I just listed are top priority.

Shall I keep moving forward with those, and shelve [new project] for later? That would be my preference, because I’d love to ride the momentum and get those done first.

Or is [new project] my new top priority?

Thanks for clarifying.

Happy Tuesday!

[Your name here]

When the Unwanted Project is Part of Your Job, but Seems Kind of Pointless, Redundant, or Unnecessary

Hey [person’s name],

Just got your note.

At our last meeting, we decided that our goals for the next few months are to [describe a few goals here], with an overall focus on [big focus here].

This project seems like a great way to [describe possible benefit here], but I’m wondering if it aligns with our bigger goals right now.

Just playing devil’s advocate here. Your thoughts?

I want to make sure I’m investing my time where it’s most needed, in the best possible order.

Let me know.


[Your name here]

When the Unwanted Project is Not Part of Your Job, Period

Hey [person’s name],

Thanks for your note.

This project looks like a fun challenge, but—unless I’m misunderstanding your instructions—it definitely falls outside of my skill set.

It sounds like an ideal assignment for [name of other person, position, role, or team]. They generally handle projects like the one you described.

Shall I forward your instructions onto them, or would you like to take it from here?

Thanks again.

[Your name here]

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway:

You may need to modify these scripts to suit your personality, your company’s communication policies, your position, and your relationship with whomever is making the request (a boss, a friend, a parent, a peer).

But these scripts ought to give you some basic bone structure.

Tuck them in the “drafts” folder of your inbox (or set them up as a Gmail canned response), so they’re handy when you need to grab one and go.

Here’s to sane workloads—and humane, respectful “no’s.”

Photo courtesy of Lindsay Upson / Getty Images.