How to Say No to the Urgent But Not Important

Some things are urgent.1 Some are important. Some are both. Some are neither.

As you consider these possibilities, it’s pretty clear that you want to invest yourself into what’s important—not just what’s urgent.

That’s not so hard for things that are neither urgent nor important. They’re not significant like they would be if they were important. They also don’t press themselves upon you like they would if they were urgent. So, such things can—and should—fall by the wayside pretty easily.

But the same isn’t true for unimportant things that still have urgency attached to them. It’s these things that particularly press for more attention than they’re worth. And it’s these things that require you to develop your skill at saying “no” well.

Saying “No” Isn’t an End in Itself

Of course, saying “no” isn’t an end in itself. Your goal shouldn’t be to have the most curmudgeonly, miserly disposition possible. That’s not what saying “no” well is about.

Saying “no” well stems from a recognition that “yes” and “no” are inevitably intertwined. “No” entails and enables “yes”; “yes” invites and requires “no.”

So, even if you say “yes” to something, that very “yes” is also a saying of “no” to something else. And the key is neither to avoid nor to perpetually be saying “no.” Rather, it’s to say “no”

  • at the right times,
  • to the right things, and
  • in the right ways.

Doing so will support the important things that you really need and want to say “yes” to.

As you work to identify what these important things are, questions like the following usually prove helpful:

  1. How much does something matter?
  2. For how long does something matter?
  3. In what context does something matter?
  4. To whom does something matter?

But even when you identify what’s important and what isn’t, you’re hardly done. It can be especially hard to say “no” to the unimportant things that remain urgent. That’s why it can be helpful to become a student of the art of saying “no” well.

Making a Start in the Art of “No”

“No” can take any number of forms. But as you’re learning to say it better, you might find some of the following approaches helpful.2

1. Pause to Clarify

Before you say “yes” to something, pause to clarify

  1. for yourself what the costs are or might be if you say “yes.” Ask yourself what tradeoffs you’ll need to make and whether you think those tradeoffs are good ones to make.
  2. the request you’ve received. The additional information you receive because someone volunteers additional information to fill a pause or answers a clarifying question of yours may help you decide whether the request is something you want to accept, and if not, to craft a better “no.”

2. Check Your Calendar

Offer to respond after checking your calendar promptly. Doing so can help relieve pressure for an immediate “yes,” and particularly if you time block, you can also take better stock of how full your current slate of commitments is.

3. Say “No … But …”

Instead of saying “no” alone, say “no … but ….” This formula can take several forms.

You might use it when something isn’t important now but will be important later. In this case, with “no … but …,” you can communicate that you can’t commit yourself to something in one time frame but you can at some discrete point in the future.

I say “discrete point” because you want to avoid the disingenuousness of using “no … but …” to imply a future “yes” that you don’t actually intend to follow through on. As Greg McKeown correctly observes,

Being vague is not the same thing as being graceful, and delaying the eventual “no” will only make it that much harder—and the recipient that much more resentful.3

Or for something that doesn’t rise to the level of importance (whether now or later), you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit in one way but you can in another. For instance, maybe you can’t agree to a request to the full extent being asked of you, but you might find it appropriate to do something else that would prove helpful.

Or you might use “no … but …” to communicate that you can’t commit yourself but that you know of someone else who might be add value to whatever project and able to help.

4. Highlight the Tradeoffs

Highlight the tradeoffs of agreeing for the person making the request, and ask whether those are worth resolving.

Sometimes, you might receive a request from someone who might not fully understand what the request entails. Once that’s communicated, the request might no longer appear worthwhile. Or the person making the request might think of ways to reduce the tradeoffs that it would entail.

5. Consider Pruning Existing Commitments

Explore the possibility of pruning existing commitments. As you do so, you clearly want to do right by the individuals who will be impacted by your stepping back. It’s your commitment, so it’s your job to resolve it and not leave someone else in the lurch or feeling like they let you off the hook under duress.

“Resolving it” might mean giving significant advance notice or negotiating an alternative solution that’s just as good or better for the other party. Or it well mean following through with your prior “yes” to close the book on that commitment and then being more careful about what you say “yes” to in the future.


Saying “no” is never an end in itself. It’s a means to a different end—to protecting the space that you have to give your attention to what matters most. But to that end, saying “no” is an indispensable means.

Without saying “no” in a way that corresponds to and supports the “yes” that you want to say, you’ll find your days filled with the urgent—but not necessarily with the important. And that’s no recipe for maximizing your contribution over the long haul.

  1. Header image provided by Florian Schmetz

  2. For the basic suggestions that I’ve summarized here, I’m grateful to Michael S. Hyatt, Free to Focus: A Total Productivity System to Achieve More by Doing Less (affiliate disclosure; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019), 108–10; Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (affiliate disclosure; New York: Crown Business, 2014), 140–54. 

  3. McKeown, Essentialism, 139. 

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