We’re all busy lawyers. Our practices keep us busy. Our lives keep us busy. But when we stop constantly saying “yes” and start saying “no” to things that don’t advance us professionally or personally, we take back control over one of our most critical commodities: our time.

If you can learn to say “no” at the right times and in the right ways, you’ll be able to do so without feeling guilty. Additionally, you’ll increase your effectiveness as a lawyer and your overall feelings of satisfaction and balance.

Ask yourself: how comfortable do you feel saying “no” to the demands, requests, or suggestions of others?  Are you being as assertive with others as you are when you are zealously advocating for a client? Do you zealously advocate for yourself and your own time?

If you end up feeling like a doormat, find yourself doing things you don’t want to do, or quiver at the thought of asking for what you do want, you are likely being too passive. Take control of your own schedule and your own life.

Is it always possible to say “no” when things come down the pike that we don’t want to do or don’t have time to do? No, of course not. Sometimes we simply don’t have a choice when we are handed a project that must get done or a deadline looms. But in many cases, we do have a choice. We don’t have to go out to yet another networking event. We don’t have to show up at optional meetings or lunches. We don’t have to coach Little League, organize the neighborhood picnic, or be the firm’s social event planner. That is, unless we want to.

Sure, when someone asks you to do something you don’t really want to do, you can avoid conflict by saying “yes,” but it actually adds to your long-term stress. Rather than enduring a bit of short-term angst in saying “no,” we often resign ourselves to a long-term task that we resent.

Honestly, consider which is better: avoiding conflict and making others happy by saying “yes” or living by your own priorities and values by saying “no” when you want and need to? Work/life balance is one of the most common issues I work with my clients on, and the ability to say “no” is a critical skill in creating more balance and less stress in your life.

Here are a few ways I’ve learned that you can say no in a firm, but respectful, way.

  1. The simple “no.” Could sound like: “Thanks, but I have to pass on that.” (Tip: Say it, then stop talking.)
  2. The scheduling-conflict “no.” Could sound like: “That’s so nice of you to think of me, but my schedule is already booked at that time.”
  3. The gracious “no.” Could sound like: “I really appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed.”
  4. The greater-good “no.” Could sound like: “I’m trying to create more balance in my life right now, so I’m having to turn down new commitments. I’m sure you understand.”
  5. The recommendation “no.” Could sound like: “That isn’t a good fit for me right now, but I know someone else who might be able to assist you.”
  6. The pass-the-buck “no.” Could sound like:  “I promised my (fill in the blank: coach, therapist, spouse, etc.) I wouldn’t take on any more commitments right now.”
  7. The apologetic “no.” Could sound like: “I’m sorry and I wish I could, but it’s not going to work right now.”
  8. The door-open-a-crack “no.” Could sound like: “Give me a few days to think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”
  9. The family/friend obligation “no.” “I appreciate the invitation, but my daughter has a piano recital at the same time that I just can’t miss.”
  10. The sort-of-yes, sort-of-no “no.” Could sound like: “I can’t do that, but I could do …” (Use this one when you want to help, but limit the commitment to something that is comfortable for you.)

Of course, I encourage you to be honest and genuine. Don’t run around making up excuses about your son’s soccer game when everyone knows you are single and childless. Find a way to say “no” that works for you, is honest and true, and leaves no room for negotiating.

Any other ways you have found to avoid making commitments that don’t move you closer to your career and personal goals? Please add them in the comments below (or say “no” and don’t do it: it’s up to you!)