The Power of Saying “No”

fighting slp burnout, productivity hacks for slps

Today I’m writing a post for the Frenzied SLP’s link-up to talk about my three favorite organization tips (for SLPs). Thanks to Kelly from Speech2U for hosting!

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Do you ever feel like you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut-off trying to get everything done?

You have to-do lists, reminders scheduled in your phone, “important” flagged emails you need to read (which you’ve put off the last 50 times you’ve check your inbox in the past 24 hours), and a pile of files left out on your desk you need to read-conveniently placed on top of the massive stack so you “don’t forget” to do it.

And this doesn’t count the OTHER to-do list you have planned for yourself once you leave work.

But you pride yourself on being an organized and productive person who can tough it out and get it all done come hell or high water.


It’s time to rethink what it means to be productive.

Contrary to popular belief, being busy and being productive are not the same thing.

You’re only being productive if you’re doing things that are important, which means you need to prioritize.

You can do this by learning to use a certain word effectively. But before I tell you what it is, let me give you an analogy.

Stephen Covey (1994) shared a story in his book First Things First which showed how we can fit our biggest priority items into our daily agenda.

Covey was at a seminar, and one of his associates was giving a lecture on time-management. The speaker put an empty jar on the table, and filled it with big, fist-sized rocks. Then he asked the audience if the jar was full. “Yes”, most of them responded; but they were wrong. Next, the speaker poured gravel into the jar, which filled the space between the large rocks.

The audience started to catch on, and they knew the jar wasn’t full yet.  The sand came next, which filled the space between the gravel.  He wasn’t done.  Last, he filled the jar with even more by adding water.

What is the moral of the story? The big rocks would have never fit into the jar if the other items had gone in first.  Those big rocks are the important priorities in your life.  Put them in first, and you’ll find the space for the smaller, less important things.

You can fit the big rocks in to your life by using a magic word.

Just say “No”. 

For this link-up we’re supposed to share THREE organization tips; however I as I racked my brain they all seemed to go back to ONE. So here are my “three” tips:

Tip 1: No.

Tip 2: No

Tip 3: No

Say “No!”, like a two-year old throwing a tantrum.


No! I don’t want to go to that unproductive meeting!

No! I’m not going to spend my precious therapy time doing things an untrained person can do!

No! I’m not going to drop what I’m doing so I can answer your email immediately!

No! No! No!


Okay, I’m exaggerating. There are more effective ways to stay organized and productive that won’t get you fired. A simple, “I’m sorry, I’m in a middle of (name important activity here) so I won’t be able to get to that right now,” will do.

How do you decide when to say “No”?

Covey described a 4-Quadrant system to use when scheduling your priorities that will help you identify your “big rocks”.

Quadrant 1 tasks are “urgent and important”. They include crises or projects with hard deadlines.  If you see your special education colleague with a student having a melt-down, go help him/her out and provide back-up. That’s important, and needs to be dealt with right now. A last minute IEP meeting was scheduled for tomorrow and you don’t have any of the paperwork done? You obviously need to do that today.

Quadrant 2 tasks are “not urgent and important”.  This is where we want to spend the majority of our time.  This includes tasks that help empower others, build relationships, prevention, education, and planning.

Did you find a great conference or professional organization to join that will link you with other therapists and give you a chance to brainstorm creative therapy solutions? Do you want to do some parent-education classes to teach ways to facilitate language at home? Do you have a tricky case and want to do some research on ways to address it (rather than scrambling to come up with something to do right before your sessions)?

These things belong in the second quadrant. Unfortunately, they are easy to put off when we get interrupted by things that seem urgent.

Quadrant 3 task are “urgent but not important.”  This includes certain meetings, emails, phone calls, and other interruptions. The problem is that we (and others) poorly judge the importance of situations and confuse this with Quadrant 1.  Just because someone else thinks something is a priority doesn’t make it so.

I’ve worked with some outstanding teachers throughout the course of my career, but I’ve also worked with some less than stellar performers.  One teacher wanted me to take a 20-30 minute block that fell right smack in the middle of my morning and help her supervise her students while she completed their behavior charts.  Thankfully my supervisor and colleagues backed me and told her she needed to problem solve and learn to manage her students.  This seemed urgent to her, but was not important in reality.

There have also been less significant situations, such as social events, meetings, or assemblies that I’ve been able to miss (with the okay from my administrators) because I was needed elsewhere.  I’ve also found that the world won’t fall apart if I only check my email once a day-which means that some people have to wait a couple hours (or even days if appropriate) for a response.

Quadrant 4 tasks are “not urgent and not important”.  This includes busywork, escape activities, and general time-wasters.  Are you dying to search the internet to see who won Dancing with the Stars last night? Did you spend your entire prep time (if you’re lucky enough to have prep time) gossiping with one of your coworkers? Did you spend your lunch break playing Angry Birds or Candy Crush? These are Quadrant 4, and should be used sparingly.

It’s important to note that it’s easy to confuse Quadrant 4 with Quadrant 2.  For example, face-time with coworkers is a good thing when it’s done to build relationships.  Additionally, giving yourself a brain break over lunch is helpful if it recharges you and helps you have a more productive afternoon- we just need to make sure we exercise discipline and do these things strategically.

Stephen Covey conducted research on people in high-performing organizations to see how they prioritized. This graph shows on average, how employees in those companies spend their time:


Successful people spend their time in Quadrant 2.  They put the “big rocks” in first.  So the next time you write your to-do list to organize your day, try doing the same.  Leave a little space for urgent, Quadrant 1 tasks, and say “No” to as many Quadrant 3 and 4 activities as possible.

Learn to plan your priorities- and you’ll find ways to use the magic,”No”.

You won’t be able to change overnight; especially if the people in your environment live in Quadrants 3 and 4.  It may take some effort, persuasion, and negotiating on your part.  I talk a little bit about how to prioritize in this free training. 



Did you like this article? Want to get more like it that will show you how to boost your students’ vocabulary skills?

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tier 2 vocabulary; school speech therapy; language therapy techniques


6 Responses to “The Power of Saying “No”

  • Thank you! A well thought out post. I loved Stephen Covey’s Habits of Highly Successful People books from a while back.

    • If you liked 7 Habits you should also read First Things First. It goes in to detail about “keeping the main thing the main thing” and how to implement the habits.

  • What a great post! I especially love this concept: “Just because someone else thinks something is a priority doesn’t make it so.” The idea of using the quadrants to schedule priorities will be so helpful as I try to do better with saying “No”. It can be so tempting to spend time on Quadrant 3&4 tasks simply because they may be more enjoyable than something that is in Quadrant 1. Thanks for sharing this insightful post!

    Schoolhouse Talk

    • Thanks Abby! I read some of Covey’s books a while back and thought it was really useful to our field.

  • SLP in KY
    1 year ago

    What if you feel frenzied and ineffective, but the school in which you work wastes almost 2 hours of your day assigning you to tasks an instructional assistant can do? I have 30 min of hall duty in the morning, 30 min supervising a computer-based reading RTI program, 30 min assisting in a classroom for reading block and 20 minutes of bus duty at the end of the day. I am afraid I would be fired if I asked for some of those duties to be removed, because there is “no one else to do them”, and then I wouldn’t be a “team player”.

    • Hi SLP in KY! That is so frustrating and unfortunate that some districts are still requiring us to things like this. I can somewhat understand the need for some of these things (perhaps you could integrate some language strategies in to that reading block), but the others are just ridiculous. I’m curious if other certified staff are required to do these tasks as well. That to me would make the difference as to whether or not I would ask for changes. Still, you could try pointing out the fact that you aren’t able to provide the highest quality services, or skilled tasks like doing diagnostic evaluations because these non-skilled duties are taking so much of your time. Many district administrators need to be educated on what it is we do. Really its much easier to say, “No” to people if they don’t have authority, but it never hurts to educate and ask our direct reports to make some changes.

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