The other day, I was with a friend who was telling me how stressed he was. He felt that everyone wanted a piece of him and he was spread too thin. He didn't want to disappoint people, especially family. I told him he needed to learn how to say no.

Like most of us, he had no idea how to gracefully but firmly decline requests.

Why is it so hard? It's just a tiny two-letter word that is tremendously liberating. So why do we feel so guilty saying no? Do you recognize these descriptions paraphrased from Michelle Tullier's "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Overcoming Procrastination":

Some people have a great sense of duty and obligation. They feel like they have to say yes to almost anything they are asked to do — and end up feeling resentful and burned out. Others just want everyone to like them. They're afraid if they say no, they might cause the person making the request to reject them. Some are afraid they'll miss out on a big opportunity if they say no. Then there are those who feel flattered when they are asked to do something. Some people hate confrontation so much they will do almost anything to avoid it. They are called pushovers.

Inevitably, someone will ask you to do something you don't have the time or ability to do. In an effort to please everyone, you may say yes. While your intentions may be honorable, the result may be falling short of completing any obligation well. So everyone might be better served if you just say no.

You probably can't turn down orders from your boss, but you can take more control of your time by not letting co-workers bury you with requests. Help when you can, but remind people politely that you've got to stick to priorities. Don't let extraneous tasks overtake your calendar.

And while it's great to be needed, don't try too hard to become your organization's "go-to" person whenever something needs to be done. You won't get ahead if you're too busy to do good work. Before you get stretched too far, consider how to say "no" without alienating your boss and your co-workers:

• Explore the assignment. Find out why you're being asked to take on this job. Are you really the only person who can do it? Is it really urgent? The more you know, the more negotiating room you have.

• Clarify your own priorities. Explain what else is on your plate and why it's important. Other people may not realize what your priorities really are, and they won't press the question once they understand the scope of your other responsibilities.

• Adjust your workflow. If your boss wants you to do something extra, use the request as an opportunity to shift your other projects: "I can do that, but my report on the Jones Project will be late — is that OK?" This shows you're thinking about priorities, and may make your boss rethink his assumptions about your workload.

• Don't say anything when you're put on the spot. Take some time to think it over.

• Be polite, but firm. Don't build false hope about what you can do. Don't say, "I'll try." You'll just worry about squeezing the request into your schedule or how you're going to say in the end that you didn't get it done.

Let me just add, from a management perspective, I love when people are willing to take on extra tasks when necessary. I do not love when their work is substandard or their usual responsibilities suffer, just to prove how many balls they could juggle at one time. That tells me that they are weak on time management.

Saying no is not the same as saying never. It's an acknowledgment that you respect yourself as well as the person doing the asking. Believe me, it won't stop him or her from asking again!

Mackay's Moral: Know when to say no.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail