No: Such a Difficult Word


When people begin to get overworked, it's common to fall back on blaming the old chestnut "time management." But the problem may have less to do with how you allocate time to projects than your inability to say no to some of those projects in the first place. In this article, Johanna Rothman takes a look at the difficulty of saying no and offers some suggestions for overcoming it.

Pat meets me in the lobby and walks me to the conference room for our 9 a.m. meeting. She yawns several times during our two-minute walk. She yawns a few more times before everyone else arrives.

"Late night?" I ask.

"They're all late," she replies. "I'm way overworked."

When I asked why, she says, "I'm good at what I do, so my boss asks me to do more. Now I'm overloaded, tired, and not making the progress I could. I must not be managing my time well. Do you know of a good time management tool?"

Managing time—or managing action, as David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, might say—only goes so far. Pat's real problem is that she has too much to do. So do her developers and testers. Everyone in her department is overworked, tired, and cranky. That's because no one knows how to say no to more work.

In some organizations, it's a badge of honor to get more work. I know of several organizations where the senior managers say, "The reward for good work is more work." Harder work might be a good idea. Different work might be a nice reward. But more work—without realizing the costs of multitasking—is not a reward. More work creates death march projects and tired people who make mistakes.

Why Some People Can't Say No
Some people can't say no and make it stick because they feel bad when they try. I've heard many reactions to my nos. One manager told me I wasn't a team player. Once, when I thought I was being a team player by explaining what I could commit to and what I could not, a manager told me I was being a slacker. No one likes hearing that your manager considers you a slacker or not a team player.

Another manager told me, "I'll get someone else to do this work," to which I replied, "Good! I'm too busy to do this."

"But I was trying to guilt you into doing the work," he said. Many people fall for that guilt.

One manager said, "But I know you can do the work. I have faith in you!" I replied that faith was a great thing, but did he want to bet the projects' success on faith? This conversation was not career enhancing. For some managers, trying to have that conversation may even be career limiting, which is why some people have trouble making their nos stick.

Pat doesn't have these problems with managers' reactions, because she hasn't said no. "I would feel as if I'm letting my team and managers down," she says.


About the author

Johanna Rothman's picture Johanna Rothman

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” helps organizational leaders see problems and risks in their product development. She helps them recognize potential “gotchas,” seize opportunities, and remove impediments. Johanna was the Agile 2009 conference chair. She is the technical editor for Agile Connection and the author of these books:

  • Manage Your Job Search
  • Hiring Geeks That Fit
  • Manage Your Project Portfolio: Increase Your Capacity and Finish More Projects
  • The 2008 Jolt Productivity award-winning Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management
  • Behind Closed Doors: Secrets of Great Management
  • Hiring the Best Knowledge Workers, Techies & Nerds: The Secrets and Science of Hiring Technical People

Johanna is working on a book about agile program management. She writes columns for and projectmanagementcom and blogs on her website,, as well on

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