5 Things To Say No To When You’re Overwhelmed

I'm going to share with you 5 things you can say no to when you're overwhelmed.  Because, let's face it we've all got to that point where we think, if anything else gets added to my blessed to do list, I might just scream!  You're already up to your eyes with "stuff" to do.  The last thing you need is yet another to-do.

Then we're asked to do something.  But rather than say no, we end up saying yes to all sorts of things.

But for your own sanity you do need to say no, especially if you feel overworked, stretched thin, and ready to pull your hair out.

So let’s crack on with the first thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed.

1.   That Extra Project Your Boss Sprung On You At 4:45 pm on a Friday

Have you ever had a boss spring a last-minute project on you?  In my role as an HR manager, many moons ago, one of the peeves people came to me with was this very situation.

Why do some managers choose a Friday afternoon to break the bombshell of extra work?  Yet another project for you to take on when you’re to-do list is already a mile long – don’t they have a life!

These last-minute bombshells cause a lot of anxiety and stress.  Traditionally, Friday nights are the night for kicking off your heels and letting your hair down.  Not for staying late to try and figure out how you're going to fit the work into your already over-complicated and packed diary.

Okay, work is important, and you always want to be as accommodating as possible, but there is a limit.

No Is Reasonable Because…

In these situations, it’s an entirely reasonable thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed by these extra projects.  Especially those projects that you have no way of completing successfully.  Sometimes, it’s in the interest of both you and the company for you to say no.

Because taking on too many projects at work can cause you to become

  • Worn down
  • Tired
  • Burnt out

The end result will be a poorer quality of work.

To say no to your boss can be a little scary, okay a lot scary.  But it can sometimes be absolutely necessary to maintain your sanity and stress levels.

If you need to say no to your boss, remember to stay positive, respectful and assertive.  For more guidance on this, have a look at my article When You Need To Say No And You Can’t.

Top Technique To Say No

When your boss asks you to do something, it's usually in your best interests to go along with it.  Afterall he keeps you employed so the last thing you want to do is seriously annoy him.  A downright no is not advisable.  So, the best way to approach this is to treat the situation as a negotiation.  

First of all, explain to your boss that you are overworked and if you were to take on this project you are concerned that the quality of results would not meet the standard required.  In this way, you're not saying no but making them aware of the consequences of not being able to do full justice to what they are asking you to do.

If your boss insists that this work needs to be done, ask what on your to-do list can either be dropped or delegated to someone else.

Ultimately, if the boss insists and refuses to adjust your other work, then you may need to escalate the situation to a more senior manager or HR.  If you're really worried about the situation I recommend you keep a record of the conversation you have.  You don't need war and peace, just a quick note of the important points.  Remember to date it and be sure to include the concerns you raised and the response you received.  Then, if at a later date you are criticised for your work, you will be able to properly defend yourself.

2.   Working After Hours

The second thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed is to say no to working after hours.  Oh, and I'd like to say that you should not constantly be working after you leave the office either.  You need some downtime.

Technology is great in many ways but, its caused the work to life ratio to be completely out of whack.  These days anyone can reach you at any time of the day or night via your smartphone or computer.

Too often we're at the mercy of:

  • Bosses
  • Colleagues
  • Clients

Believe me, your wellbeing will suffer if you are available at any time of the day or night.  This was a mistake I made during my career.  I’d work a full day at the office, and then after I got home, I would log on again and continue working for a few hours.  Goodbye, any chance of a social life or any downtime.  Hello Billy No Mates.

The Right To Disconnect - several countries in Europe have introduced rules to protect a worker’s right not to respond to communications from work outside the business’s core hours, and not to be penalised for this.  At Volkswagen for example, non-management employees reportedly cannot access their email on their smartphones between 6.15 pm and 7.00 am.

This is a positive step forward as big business begin to appreciate that people can't be constantly on call and unable to shut off.  Since the pandemic and working from home has become more commonplace it's hard to see how this would work in practice in the UK. 

If you're interested in reading more about this, have a look at this article on the BBC website

Set Boundaries

So in the absence of any rights in the UK, to stop working all hours God sends, you may need to set boundaries around your response time to phone calls or emails.  For example, make it clear when during the day you'll be available to answer phone calls or emails.  This is definitely a thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.

If someone contacts you outside of that time, simply do not respond or restate that you will get back to them during your work hours.  Except for cases of extreme emergencies, stick to your office hours as closely as possible.

The more exceptions you make, or the more often you ignore your own boundaries, the more stressed you will become.  Be firm, say no when needed, and keep it consistent.

3.   Volunteering For Your Child’s School and Activities

I’m not a parent, but I’ve seen the amount of stress that friends and family have experienced due to school events and activities.  So my third thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed is volunteering needlessly.

If you are a parent, you know how many stressors and responsibilities come with having a child.  There are some responsibilities you simply cannot avoid as a parent.  But there are some responsibilities that you can miss every now and then whenever you’re feeling worn down.

A Parents Main Job

For example, say no to different volunteering opportunities in your child’s life.  You do not need to bake cakes for your child’s next school fair.  Your job as a parent is to create a happy and safe home.  Your home cannot be happy if you are stretched thin from doing things like baking cakes or going to PTA meetings on top of your other responsibilities.

4.   Going Out With Your Friends

Going out with friends can be fun and relaxing, but sometimes you might just need to stay in. 

We’ve all experienced the week from hell.  Anything that could go wrong has gone wrong, and now, at the end of the day, all you want to do is flop about in your PJs and eat the biggest bar of chocolate you can find.

But, you’ve arranged to meet up with the girls for a night out.

We don’t like letting our friends down, and sometimes a night out can be just the ticket if you want to de-stress.  But sometimes, even the prospect of a fun night out can leave you feeling stressed.  This is why I suggest that this is a thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed.

First of all, no real friend would pressure you to go out if you feel completely knackered.  They understand and ultimately want what’s best for you.  If you feel pressured to go, you may need to look at the people you surround yourself with!

Be A Role Model For Your Friends

There's nothing wrong with saying no to your friends when you need to spend some time alone to decompress and reflect on the week.  Besides, you can be an excellent example to your friends.  When you prioritise your downtime in this way, you also say that you will support them should the situation be reversed.

So, before you just go with the flow, think about how much you need to chill out.  You’re not going to enjoy a night out if you’re knackered, and you could ruin the evening for everyone.

5.   Making Dinner For Your Family Every Night

My last thing to say no to when you’re overwhelmed involves the family.  Having a family can be very stressful.  Most working women I know do a full day at work and then when they get home, they start their home job.  I for one never signed up to have two full-time jobs!

So whenever you feel overworked and tired, say no to making dinner for a night.  The family still needs to eat, but you don't need to make elaborate meals that can take up to three hours to prepare.  Unless cooking is your way of chilling out.

When saying no to making dinner for your family, you could ask your spouse/partner to take over for a night, or how about grabbing a takeaway.  Chances are, your other half might be happy to cook for a night, and your children certainly won’t care if the option is a takeaway.

A Regular Thing

To reduce your stress on an ongoing basis, why not say no to cooking one day every week.  For example, set aside Friday nights for a takeaway.  Or choose a day of the week when you know you are particularly busy in the office.  This might not be the best option if you’re on a tight budget, but it will give you a weekly opportunity to take a break from cooking and doing a lot of dishes.

Alternatively, why not split the cooking?  Agree that whoever cooks, the other person does the clean up afterwards.  That's fair isn't it?  Who said you needed to do it all.


It is so easy to feel out of control in your life and let stress get the better of you.  Before it gets to an unreasonable level, learn how to say no.  Consider one of the following things to say no to when you’re overwhelmed:

  • extra work projects
  • working after hours
  • volunteering in your child’s life
  • going out with friends, or
  • making dinner for your family for a night

Even if you say no to one of these items, you will significantly decrease your stress and you'll feel more relaxed and appreciated.

So which one will you say no to?

About the author Alison

A qualified UK based coach with 30 years of experience in personal development.

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