The Car Park Problem: Learning to Say No


I was back in Singapore for Lunar New Year last month and encountered a peculiar problem in the car park. My best friend was driving and we were looking for a parking space in a multi-storey car park. However, when she drove to the third storey, everything came to a standstill. We didn’t move for twenty minutes.

By some miracle, we eventually found a parking lot and got out as quickly as we could. I asked my best friend about this and she said this was a common situation faced in this car park. The car park had a major problem. It had only one lane. Cars that came up to find parking lots were blocked by cars which were trying to get out of the carpark. Then the honking starts. All that was needed to solve the problem was for someone to say no to the situation, get out of the car and direct the traffic, but everyone preferred to sit in their air-conditioned vehicle… and honk. Nobody wanted to get out into the heat and roll up their sleeves to get the traffic moving.

The car park problem reflects a similar problem I face in work: my inability to say no, because it is uncomfortable.

As a junior, it is normal that we would want to please our bosses. It could be ambition that drives us to constantly want to impress our superiors. Sometimes its nervousness that we may be left behind our peers if we don’t make them happy. Sometimes it could be just purely of fear that we will not progress in our careers if we don’t. I have the same fear. During one of my projects, I received the feedback that in my eagerness to please, I didn’t actually know what I signed up for. Given the tight deadline of one month, I didn’t actually have the capacity to perform the task, but I said yes to the partner because I didn’t like the idea of rejecting a partner. I mean, it’s a partner.

Since it’s so uncomfortable to say no, why should I do it then?

It affects your ability to deliver on other tasks.

For every task that you accept, you need to consider the consequences on the other outstanding work that you have. Does it affect the quality and the timeliness of other work? How does it change the order of priority of each piece of work? This will also put your reputation at stake if you fail to deliver.

A good piece of advice I was given by someone was to “under-promise and over-deliver” for every piece of work that you receive. As you’ve managed expectations when the task was initially handed out to you, any extra mile you go will enable you to exceed expectations upon completion of your task. However, I’ll put a twist on this principle – before you can even under-promise anything, how about think of what you can even promise in the first place. Because if you’re overworked, you can under-promise, but you’ll probably under-deliver as well.

It increases chance of burnout from work.

One of the main points that I didn’t mention in my post on the difficulties of transitioning from University to work, which eventually leads graduates to want to quit very quickly, is actually due to our inability to say no. Having more responsibilities and being challenged is a good thing, but when it starts making you sacrifice your weekends and prolong your weekdays, you will burn out soon.

As some of us aren’t willing to have this conversation about being overworked with our boss, we choose to quit instead because we can’t actually live like that. We live with the stigma that saying no and refusing a task means that we are lazy and not willing to be challenged, but there is a line. Sometimes people give you so much because they have become accustomed to you taking on so much that they don’t even realise. However, nobody is going to tell them except for you. The onus is on you.

In fact, I would think that employers would prefer you to work hard, be consistent about the quality of work, rather than work extremely hard all the time and quit after less than 2 years of working for them. As quoted by a friend who has his own company, “we prefer a consistent employee than a one who slacks one day, hotshot the next. When you’re running a company, you want reduce all the unknowns as much as possible. There’s enough of them as it is.”

An obvious question now comes to mind, how do you say no exactly?

An effective method that I’ve tried so far was to ask questions to clarify and increase my understanding of the task. Sometimes people aren’t really sure what task they are handing out to you to do, sometimes they don’t even know the purpose of the task. Hence, by asking questions and challenging them slightly, the task may actually have been redundant. You could try listing the competing priorities you have at hand to see whether you can fit the new task in, or if the person will get the message that it’s not possible. In fact, even if you didn’t successfully manage to say no, the person can at least give you a hand at prioritising the different tasks you’re juggling with.

I haven’t been able to investigate the different methods, but one thing not to do is to say no immediately when the request is given. It’s so easy to come off as rude and arrogant when you say no immediately, especially to your superior.

Concluding Thoughts

There’s always a rainbow if you just step out.

With that said, it’s important to not reject challenges to increase your capacity and ability at work. You need to judge correctly for yourself what is too much for you and what you’re rejecting because you aren’t willing to be challenged.

Nobody knows whether you’re just being lazy or you’re really overloaded with work, except you. We are sometimes so good at putting a professional and calm front that we forget to prioritise our own well-being. We sit there stuck in our cars honking all day, frustrated and angry with the situation. We forget that the quality of our other work decreases when we take on more than we can handle. We forget that we could actually do something about the car park problem.

If you face the carpark problem in your workplace, why don’t you stop honking and do something about it today?

Hope you enjoyed the post! I would also like to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment. You’ll never know who else is reading your comments and might benefit from them!

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Stay fabulous & strong everyone! 



One thought on “The Car Park Problem: Learning to Say No

  1. I fundamentally agree with this post; as I have witnessed many colleagues (especially newjoiners, including myself) who are keen to please and overpromise; the result is rarely optimistic. The trick to a sustainable lifestyle at work is to manage your supervisors appropriately and aggressive prioritisation.

    From my (limited) experience, it is not about saying “no”, but having a frank conversation with your supervisor/teammate on what is on your plate and what is realistically accomplishable by end of day or what can wait till tomorrow. Flagging to your supervisors appropriately that you might not be able to complete tasks X, Y and Z is also an appreciated practice as it gives clarity on your progress.

    Remember: work should not overtake your life. if you’re lucky, you are assigned to a manager who is proactive in lifestyle management – but the best person to govern that is none other than yourself.


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