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‘I Don’t Know How to Say ‘No’ at Work’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Doing the Most is a special series about ambition — how we define it, harness it, and conquer it.

Dear Boss,

I’ve become the go-to person everyone at work relies on for more and more job functions until I’m unable to keep up. I’m the type who goes to my own birthday party and ends up fixing one friend’s phone and cleaning part of a different friend’s house before I go home. I like to be busy and helpful, but there are limits.

At work, no matter what my job is at the start, I end up being put in charge of multiple people’s jobs as they leave the company, take sick or maternity leave, or in lieu of hiring more staff. Multiple supervisors have said they like me because they just have to tell me to do something and they know it will be handled.

In my current position, I’m handling the job I was hired for, have taken on all entry-level technical jobs from two other employees who were moved to bigger projects when a contractor quit, am the primary cover for any receptionist shortages, and am a replacement for a part-timer in a different department. I’m doing all of this while also doing project management and supervision that would usually be handled by my boss.

In my previous position, I started out covering for two people. Then, when we had a staff shortage, I ended up covering three and a half positions to the tune of almost 200 hours of overtime in my last six months.

In the job before that, I was covering three people’s jobs by the time I quit. And they still tried to call and see if I would come back when they heard I’d left my last position.

When I was hired in my current job, before the pandemic, I was up front with my new boss that I was leaving my previous job due to the drastically increased schedule and was assured that it wouldn’t be a problem here and that they didn’t encourage overtime. But here I am.

Co-workers have suggested just being worse at my job or playing up my failure to do the primary job I was hired for, but I hate that idea — in part because when they talk about not doing parts of their job and how it’s fine, I’m reminded that I’m the reason that it’s generally been fine, as I’ve handled emergencies and cleaned up messes.

I’m very tired of having to job-hop for the same reason. How do I find a job that won’t put me in this situation again? Or, barring that, how do I change my behavior to keep this from happening? I just want to be able to be good at my job without having to be good at everyone else’s.

I’m not a fan of the “Be worse at your job” advice either — mostly because when someone is very conscientious like you, it’s an impossible suggestion to follow. It can work — and frankly, you’re probably going to have to do some of that, whether you want to or not — but when you’re someone who takes pride in doing good work (and you clearly are), relying on that as your primary strategy can be painful.

Instead, I’d argue that you need to be better at a part of your job that you’re probably not thinking of as part of your job at all: setting boundaries on your time and labor.

It sounds like you have a natural inclination to be helpful and you’re competent, so people are glad to take you up on that. But while it might be beneficial to your employers in the short term, it won’t be in the long run. Not only will you get demoralized, burned-out, and leave faster than you otherwise would, it also means that you’ll be hiding from them the true cost of running their business. It’s not helpful for a manager to think that A, B, C, D, E, and F can all be done by one person and plan their staffing and budgets accordingly, if in fact when you leave they’ll need to hire three people to fill the gap.

The bigger issue, of course, is that it’s a problem for you — for your quality of life and energy levels and job satisfaction. But because you’re someone with a strong tendency to be of assistance, it could help to mentally reframe what you’ve been doing as not actually advantageous for anyone in the long run.

Instead, you need to enforce boundaries on your time and energy — and you probably need to do that even when you technically could find a way to squeeze something in. Get in the habit of assessing what you “can” do based not on how much you could do if you sacrificed all quality of life and joy from your job but on what you can reasonably do in a normal-length workweek without leaving yourself feeling exhausted and exploited at the end of it. The way to do that sounds like this:

“My plate is already full, and I wouldn’t have time to add X.”


“If you want me to do X, I would need to stop doing Y.”


“Just to make sure you know, X hasn’t happened in two weeks, and I won’t be able to get to it in the foreseeable future. I wanted to flag that in case you’d like to bring someone else in to do it.”


“I want to remind you that we agreed I wouldn’t focus on Y because you needed me to prioritize Z.”

“I can do X and Y, or X and Z, but not all three. My plan is to do X and as much of Y as I can get through by the 15th. Let me know if you want me to prioritize them differently.”


“I want to make sure we’re on the same page about my priorities. From what I understand, A, B, and C are the most important things to take care of. Assuming I focus on those, I won’t have time for D and E at all this quarter. I can train Jane to do those, or we could hire help, or we can keep those indefinitely on the back burner until we have another solution. But I want to be transparent that I can’t do all of this, so we need to pick where I should focus and what should be de-prioritized.”


If you’re told to find a way to do it all: “There aren’t enough hours in the day for one person to do all of that, so a lot will need to be on the back burner until I have time, which doesn’t look likely to happen in the next few months — and probably not at all this year unless we hire someone to take over A and B.”

The key, though, is that you then have to be vigilant about sticking to, Okay, that means I will stop working on X for the foreseeable future. If you have an impulse to help, that could end up being tricky! You have to get really clear in your own head that you’re committed to solving this on your side, and that means not agreeing to take on more than you want to.

It’s also worth noting that by letting yourself fulfill all your employer’s needs, even ones far outside the scope of your job, you’re preventing them from recognizing the need for any other solution. When you agree to try to do everything yourself, you’re agreeing to be the only one who carries the burden, and it stops feeling urgent to them. It’s better for the organization if things don’t get done. That way, your employer realizes the problem is pressing and finds better ways to address it.

Part of approaching it this way likely means that you need to be less emotionally invested in doing a good job. You sound like you’re dedicated to helping things run smoothly — but it doesn’t make sense for you to be more dedicated than your management is! Remind yourself that if they really care about keeping things running smoothly, they can redirect resources accordingly (i.e., hire more help). You are a person they hired to do a specific job, not the person in charge of making everything work.

Now, sometimes people worry that they can’t set boundaries like this without some sort of dire consequence to their career. But it sounds like you’ve been highly valued at all your jobs. As an exceptionally competent employee who has proven their value, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to be fired for saying that, in fact, you are not superhuman and that there are limits to how much you can do. Your managers might not like it, and they might grumble, but you’re not likely to get in any serious trouble. And if a manager does react badly to this kind of reasonable boundary-setting from a productive employee, that’s a sign that you need to get out anyway, because there will always be serious toxicity there.

Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email Her advice column appears here every other Tuesday.

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‘I Don’t Know How to Say ‘No’ at Work’