How This Simple Email Trick Has Helped Me Get Better At Saying No

Photographed by Tayler Smith.
As the founder of a growing business, I get a lot of emails. I probably spend about 30 percent of my time answering emails on a daily basis. If you run a business or have a side gig, you can probably relate. Many of these emails are requests for my time, whether it’s asking to “hop on a quick call” to learn more about our business, or requesting to meet in person, or to speak on a panel, or provide input for an article.
While these types of requests are well-intentioned (and if you’ve ever written one, don’t let this piece dissuade you from doing so — we all do it, and it’s a networking must), it’s nearly impossible to answer every request with a “yes.” If you said yes to everything, you’d spend your full work days answering emails, hopping on calls, meeting for coffee chats, and never getting the so-called "real" work done. Because of this, in the past few years, I’ve become an expert at saying no.
Saying no and fiercely protecting your time forces you to prioritize the tasks that are truly important and prevents you from burning out. In other words, saying no is an integral part of my self-care routine! One caveat, of course, is that there may be emails that are truly important for you to respond to. For instance, I have a personal rule that while I say no to most requests to “pick my brain,” I say yes to most requests that come from students from underrepresented backgrounds who want to learn more about my industry or profession. I also say yes to requests that give me that “butterfly-in-the-stomach” excitement that means I’m truly looking forward to meeting or working with the person. It’s important when getting comfortable with saying no that you understand your own personal guardrails and guidelines for when you’ll say yes.
I’ve found that my golden rule to saying no to any request is to be as graciously honest as possible, and propose other solutions when appropriate. First, just because you say no doesn’t mean you’re a bad person! It means you’re being transparent about what and how much you’re able to give to someone. As long as you express gratitude (after all, I do believe that having so many individuals ask for your time/help/input/etc. is an exciting privilege) and stay true to yourself and this person, you’re good. We’re all human and can only take on so much work, and people (hopefully) understand that. Second, proposing other solutions can help you feel like you’re still being helpful.
I’ve written out some canned responses below that you can feel free to copy, paste, and customize depending on your situation. These responses have helped me respond graciously and honestly to most requests for my time.
Scenario: Someone asks for a coffee chat or wants to "pick your brain."
“Hi! Thanks so much for reaching out. Could I ask for more specifics on what you’re looking to learn? I’d love to come to our chat prepared with answers and also ensure that I can give the type of answers you’re looking for. I might know others in my network who might be better suited to help.”
Scenario: Someone asks you to participate in a speaking engagement, podcast appearance, etc., but you either don’t have the time/energy or have no interest.
“Hi! Thanks so much for reaching out. This looks like a fantastic event/opportunity. Unfortunately, my priorities and focus are elsewhere this quarter, and I have to decline any speaking engagements. I love your line-up and could easily see my friends and acquaintances ______[name here]________ and _____[name here]______ fitting in. Please do keep me in mind for any future opportunities and let me know if I can help facilitate an intro!”
Scenario: An exciting opportunity or partnership that you aren't ready for.
Hi! Thanks so much for this opportunity and thinking of me. It’s so exciting and a project I could definitely see myself taking on. This year, however, my priorities are on X, Y, Z, so I have to politely decline. Would you be open to me getting back in touch in the latter half of this year to reconnect about the opportunity?”
Scenario: Someone wants to work for you but you're not ready to hire yet or they're not a good fit.
“Hi there, thanks so much for applying! We’re not yet ready to hire for this position, but urge you to keep an eye out on our website and social media accounts for news on hiring.”
Scenario: A friend or acquaintance wants to introduce you to someone else.
Note: This one is tough because it’s coming from a trusted source and filter. I usually say yes to these if they come through a warm lead like a friend, as a courtesy. Also, the hope is that your friend did a “double opt-in” — i.e. asked both parties for permission to connect/intro the other — so it’s less awkward for everyone. If you have to say no, though, the script is largely the same as above, but maybe a bit more personalized:
“Hey ____! It’s so great to connect. __[name]__ has said so many nice things about you. [specifics here] I have to admit that I’m drowning in work at the moment and am heads down trying to get this project out the door. Would you have time to chat and reconnect next month?”
Scenario: Another business wants to partner with you, but they're either not a good fit or not at the right stage/size where the partnership feels equitable.
“Hello! Thanks so much for reaching out about a partnership. For full transparency, we currently look for partners who have X, Y, Z. [Include the factors you’re looking for, whether that’s ‘a weekly reach of over 250,000,’ or ‘focus in the consumer health-tech space.’] Given that, I don’t think this is currently a fit but would love to keep in touch about other creative ways we could potentially partner, and am open to your ideas as well.”
Scenario: An individual or company follows up with you after you’ve said no.
This is a common occurrence, and good for that person for being persistent. I think two to three follow-ups is an acceptable rule of thumb. If your answer is still no, I largely follow the same scripts above of politely declining and restating that my focus is elsewhere.
While giving back and helping others is important, your time and energy are precious. I hope these canned responses can help you reclaim some moments in your busy day.
Alisha Ramos is the founder and CEO of Girls' Night In, a self-care newsletter and company. She lives in Washington, D.C., and you can find her on Instagram @alisharamos.

More from Work & Money

R29 Original Series