The Various Intensities of Saying No (and letting people know you can’t prioritize their thing)

Say someone emails you and your answer needs to be no. There are different intensities of that. 

Say it’s a good friend of yours.

Being honest with your friends is usually easy.

You’re going to hate me, because I have to say no on this one. I looooveeee the idea and I’m so glad you’re doing it and please keep me in the loop on it if you have time. It’s just with everything I have going on, I might go bananas taking on anything else. 💙s, Chris.


Yours will probably be much more personal, explaining how your mother-in-law is staying with you because she broke her hip or whatever.

Say it’s someone who’s done a pretty good job of writing that email…

… and you don’t dislike the idea, but the answer is still no. That’s the thing that got me thinking an inspired this:

Probably ends up like:

Hey! Thanks for reaching out about this. I think it’s a great idea and you should totally do it. As for my part, I’m afraid that I can’t prioritize it right now. Best of luck and feel free to let me know how it goes.


What I like about it is that it feels:

  1. Most honest
  2. Slightly stronger than my typical “I’m too busy” or “I don’t have time” response

I’m literally telling you that I’m not willing to prioritize your thing. Theoretically I “have time”. I could make an extra cup of coffee at night and stay up an hour later and do it probably. But I don’t want to. I’m not willing to prioritize that over the sleep or other side project or whatever else. 

If you really do wish you could do the thing but can’t, feel free to say that. I’m sure you can say that honestly and not feel like your lying. For example:

Jason Fried has a story where he really liked a kid who wanted to intern form him, but it turns out he just didn’t have the attention:

I recently realized that if I’m too busy to take something on, I shouldn’t say “I don’t have the time”. In fact, I often do have the time. It’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for someone.


What I don’t have – and what I can’t squeeze in – is more attention. Attention is a far more limited resource than time. So what I should say is “I don’t have the attention”.

You don’t have to say yes to everything, even when you like them.

Say you just don’t like the idea

I’d probably go with a very similar, but shorter response:

Hey! I’m sorry but I can’t prioritize this right now. Best of luck!

It’s not your job or mine to give people a bunch of feedback on why you’re not into the idea. That’s work, and the goal here is shooing away this email, not having it take up time.

Turns out Dan Mall had the same exact idea a few years ago:

Recently, I’ve tried to stop saying, “I don’t have time.” It insinuates that I’m a helpless victim to the all-powerful stream of hours that mightily passes me by. It’s easy to adopt an “Oh well” attitude to what you’re giving up. It authorizes my apathy.


Instead, I’ve replaced it with the phrase, “That’s not a priority.” Suddenly, I’ve taken control of my own decisions. I’ve taken responsibility for what I do and don’t do. I’ve added clarity, condemnation, and encouragement, all in 4 short words.


“Watching another episode is not a priority.”
“Taking my wife on a date is not a priority.”
“Writing a blog post is not a priority.”
“Building that side project is not a priority.”

Say they are rude

By-eeeeee. You get nothing. If they are extraordinarily rude or even dangerous, I’d say use your best instincts there on what to do. I’ve had circumstances where I felt it was a good idea to forward it along to their employer being like “look at your boy here, not a good look.”

You don’t have to give a reason at all

It sure seems culturally necessary to say why you can’t do a thing. We just had a 1st birthday party for my daughter Ruby, and not a single e-decline for our invite didn’t include an elaborate reason why they couldn’t attend. I get it. It feels abrupt and a bit rude to just click a “no” radio button and close a tab. 

But with an unsolicited email… an elaborate reason seems unnecessary. You probably won’t get one from me. 

Here’s the best one in history:

Brad Frost tells me there is good advice in this book

I’ll have to pick it up.

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