How To Professionally Say 'I Don't Have Time For This' At Work

Learning how to tell your boss or colleagues "no" is necessary, or you'll burn out.
Learning how to set boundaries and priorities at work is a skill everyone needs to learn.
Mix and Match Studio / 500px via Getty Images
Learning how to set boundaries and priorities at work is a skill everyone needs to learn.

It is an unfortunately universal career truth that you will be given work that you do not want to do.

Sometimes, it’s tedious tasks you simply have to complete to get through a project. But when you’re given a task outside of your job description or busywork that truly doesn’t matter, it may be time to set a boundary. So, how do you tactfully say “I don’t have time for this?”

It takes real skill to set a boundary and gracefully decline, especially when an assignment is coming from your boss or a crucial higher-up. But it’s worse to stay silent, overwhelm yourself with responsibilities and burn yourself out.

“If you don’t say anything, no one is going to think anything is wrong,” said Lawrese Brown, the founder of C-Track Training, a workplace education company.

Here’s what you need to consider when you push back against a peer’s or boss’s request:

First, you need to recognize when you need to push back.

Sometimes, when a superior asks “Can you do this?” we hear, “You must do this.” But if your boss is reasonable, there’s usually room to offer feedback. Learning how to align their priorities with your own is a part of managing up; you ultimately know how you work best. And sometimes, your boss may not realize that the way they word their request for “end of day” could have you pulling an all-nighter.

Career coach Jasmine Escalera said that early in her career, she used to say “yes” to anything that her boss asked. “I thought that that was what I supposed to do in order to grow within my career,” she said. But she later recognized that by saying yes to everything, she was just categorizing herself as “someone who would just do a lot of work.”

Brown said one other common scenario professionals run into is being asked to do tasks that do not align with their personal goals. They may have the time to do them, but not the will. This is one of the trickiest concerns to bring up ― especially when you and your co-workers know these are not helpful to the team, but your leadership doesn’t realize it.

If you do decide to push back on tasks that fall into this category, focus on how it is causing the team to be inefficient. Brown gave the example of an employee feedback form that people are told to fill out when they have a complaint, even though the form itself doesn’t prompt any action.

In this case, she said, you could ask, “Is this the best way for us to be capturing employee grievances? I’ve noticed that even when people write in the form, they are going to have to bring it up to a manager, too.”

Telling a colleague “I don’t have time for this” is easier. Just try this.

Because you don’t report directly to your peers, it’s generally easier to set polite boundaries with them than it is to do it with your manager.

When you know you don’t have time for a task a colleague is asking you to do, you can simply directly say, “I’m sorry, I’m unable to help you with this right now,” and negotiate to complete the request at a later time or with a different scope, or refer them to a different colleague who could help, said Mary Abbajay, president of the leadership development consultancy Careerstone Group.

“The idea is to be gracious and helpful without saying ‘yes’ if you don’t have time to do it,” Abbajay said. “The worst you can do is say ‘yes’ to something you don’t have time for and then that adds stress to your plate, and will probably make what you are trying to get done late.”

Saying “no” to your boss goes better when you have a solution in mind.

Brown finds the biggest mistake people make when being overwhelmed with assignments from their bosses is simply saying “I don’t have time for this” and not having a solution in mind.

“Don’t just stop at the identification of it, because then you’ll come off as complaining, even when the complaint or grievance is valid,” she said.

Keep in mind that the way you talk to a boss is going to be different than how you speak to a peer because of the power dynamic. Brown said the tone for a peer can be more informal, with language like “Hey, let’s work on this together!” But with a manager, you may need to couch your request in a question, such as “Can we meet so that you can give information on how I can best prioritize?”

“Recognize that your boss may have their own busy demands to attend to and may have no idea that their latest request is actually your breaking point.”

When talking to your boss, it helps to immediately acknowledge their decision-making authority and offer to adjust your priorities, said organizational psychologist Laura Gallaher of the consulting firm Gallaher Edge. For example, you could say “If I help you with that now, then I’ll complete this task/project [at this later date] –– will that work for you?” she said.

Recognize that your boss may have their own busy demands to attend to and may have no idea that their latest request is actually your breaking point. To present your case for what really deserves your attention, track how long it takes you to do certain tasks over a week or two. That way, when you ask your boss if it’s possible to redirect your responsibilities elsewhere, you have data to back you up about how certain tasks are clogging up your schedule, Escalera suggested.

This is something she’s tried herself. “I remember having this conversation with a supervisor of mine where I presented my task items and my time and my allotment, and he actually was like, ‘Oh, well, these things are not even in your job description. You should be delegating this,’” Escalera said. “He had no idea or knowledge of what I was doing on a day-to-day basis.”

When there is a disagreement between you and your boss about what you should tackle, Gallaher said you could try saying something like, “I have a different understanding of what my priority is — if we’re not in alignment, perhaps we can go to leadership together to get clarity. I definitely want to support the company’s highest priority.”

But at a certain point, if you are finding that your leadership is making you continuously unable to prioritize tasks that really matter to your goals, Escalera said that this could be a sign to start looking for a job elsewhere.

“If no one is really there to support or guide you, and the work is just too massive and too much, it might be a moment for you to ask yourself: ‘Is this really the company or organization I need to be in right now? Is this a place where I can truly thrive?’”