3 Better Ways to Say “I Don’t Have Time for This Right Now”

Work can be hectic. Monday to Friday, our days brim with meetings to attend, projects to complete, coworkers to help, files to organize, and whatever emergencies happen to crop up. By Tuesday, you can already see your workload tumbling into the weekend. That’s usually when a coworker walks to your desk with a sheepish smile and asks, “Do you have a minute?”


You want to say, “I don’t have time for this right now,” but that word choice can feel rude. Still, you’re overloaded and must navigate the request. Here are three ways to do just that.

“I’m having an eventful day/week. Can we return to this [set a specific time]?”

Your aim is twofold. You’re acknowledging your workload to yourself as much as your coworker. This reinforces your needs. But by providing a specific time to reconvene, you’re letting your coworker know you recognize their needs, too. You’ll do what you can when you can.

Setting a specific time is important; don’t schedule for “later.” Later is too vague. Your coworker may assume you mean later today or tomorrow or next week, and you’ll waste her time if she follows up too soon. Worse, she may read your vagueness as designed to brush her off, potentially leading to an uncooperative work relationship.

“I can’t make it a priority right now, but I’ll definitely help when things calm down.”

Try this alternative if you don’t know when your schedule will ease up. The advantage is that you’re being gentle while being forthright. You want to help, but since you’re unable to make the request a priority, you’re letting your coworker know you can’t commit to anything time sensitive.

Now, it’s your coworker’s decision. If he decides to seek someone else’s help, you’ve still shown your willingness to help now and in the future. On the other hand, if the request proves to not be time sensitive, you can assist later without adding to your stress levels now.

This tactic does come with one major disadvantage, though. Back-burnered projects can easily be forgotten. Doing so isn’t respectful of your coworker or his time. If you go this route, plan carefully and commit.

“I’d be happy to help, but I’ll need a hand on [X] to fit it in my schedule.”

This is the trade-off approach. The goal here isn’t to drop your work onto your coworker. Rather, use this opportunity to elicit some assistance you need but haven’t had time to request. Not only will this be beneficial to you, it will likely make your coworker feel better for asking in the first place.

However, ensure the transaction balances out. You don’t want to accept assistance for a half-hour project if it means helping your coworker for three hours. You’ll be even busier than before.

Don’t proffer reciprocity to avoid saying no, either. Your skills and knowledge should supplement your coworker’s and vice versa, allowing you both to efficiently help and teach the other. If you don’t think that will be the case, use one of the other two options.

Keeping your busy in check

Saying “I don’t have time for this right now” is tactless. It implies your schedule and your workload are more important than your coworkers’. One quality these three alternatives share is they show your desire to help but leave space for you to offer it when schedules align. They maintain quality, productive relationships while keeping you from being overwhelmed.

They’re advantageous for your coworkers, too. Trying to multitask too many projects will lessen your effectiveness. Rescheduling for when you can focus ensures your help is at its best.

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