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Practice Saying No

We are coming to that time of the year that is both blessed and cursed with zillions of invitations.

Here are some that are in my email right now: Can you meet me for coffee to help me with my book proposal? Will you bring an entree to the 8th grade teacher lunch? Are you coming to our party at the end of the month? Can you help with my son’s college applications? Do you want to take the kids to go see Beach Blanket Babylon?

As much as I’d like to do all of these things, I can’t. When I take on everything that comes my way, I find that I start staying up late in order to get everything done. And then, tired, I start pressing snooze instead of meditating in the morning. Before I know it, I’m too tired to exercise, too, something that is essential for my wellbeing. It’s a slippery slope that starts with me taking care of other people’s needs at the expense of my own, and ends with me being too tired (and sometimes sick) to take care of anybody’s needs, my own included (much less do anything fun, like go to a party). Perhaps this is obvious, but just to spell it out: When we get sick and tired, we have a hard time feeling happy, and a hard time fulfilling our potential, both at home and at work.

But saying “no” can be really hard — I hate making people feel bad for even asking. It takes practice to say no in a way that doesn’t offend people, much less to say it in a way that makes folks feel happy they asked. Giving no that good takes practice. Here is my three step plan.

Step One: Prepare yourself to say “No.”

It is much easier to say no to an invitation when we have a concrete reason for doing so–a way to justify our refusal beyond the vague notion that we should avoid the commitment in question.

This means that we need to create the reason for saying no before we need it — we need a decision-making structure, or “rules” to guide us so that we don’t have to agonize over every invitation.

For example, one rule I have for myself is that I don’t go out more than two nights in a given week, because I know that when I do this, I get cranky, tired, and run down. So if someone asks me about a third evening one week, I have the structure I need to tell them I’m not available (but thank you for asking!). Similarly, I only meet people during the workday for lunch or coffee two times per week, I only do two speaking engagements a month, and I only do one phone interview a day.

In addition to making rules for myself, I block out time on my calendar for things like writing (in the morning, when I’m most productive), hiking (in the afternoon, when I need a break), and for tackling administrative tasks (on Fridays, when I’m most inclined to want to just tick stuff off my list). This means that a lot of time on my calendar is blocked out, which can be really annoying to people who are trying to make an appointment with me. At the same time, however, blocking time out for the things I need to do to feel calm makes it totally clear to me when I’m just not available. This makes it much easier to give good no.

Finally, if I’m available to do something, I don’t say yes before asking myself a very important question: Do I want to do this thing, or is it that I feel I “should”? Will saying “yes” bring me joy or meaning? Or will I feel dread or regret when this particular event or task rolls around? I’ve learned to notice when I’m glad I said “yes”; it has helped me realize how much happiness I get from helping other people. (I always try to help my friends’ children with their college applications, for example. So fun.)

One of the joys of middle age is that I now feel confident that if I do only the things that I really feel compelled to do (rather than the things I used to do because I thought I “should” do), I end up contributing more. If I find myself considering an invitation because I’m worried about what other people think of me, or because I think it will “look good on my resume,” I just say no.

Step Two: Say no.

I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have go-to ways to just say no. I mostly use Renee’s “I’m already booked” strategy (see below), because that is most often the reason I can’t do something. Here are some other tactics — 21, count ‘em!–that work for me:

  1. Vague but effective: “Thank you for asking, but that isn’t going to work out for me.”
  2. It’s not personal: “Thank you for asking, but I’m not doing any interviews while I’m writing my book.”
  3. Ask me later: “I want to do that, but I’m not available until April. Will you ask me again then?”
  4. Let me hook you up: “I can’t do it, but I’ll bet Shelly can. I’ll ask her for you.”
  5. Keep trying: “None of those dates work for me, but I would love to see you. Send me some more dates.”
  6. Try me last minute: “I can’t put anything else on my calendar this month, but I’d love to do that with you sometime. Will you call me right before you go again?”
  7. Gratitude: “Thank you so much for your enthusiasm and support! I’m sorry I’m not able to help you at this time.”
  8. Give Dad a chance: “You know, I feel like moms are always getting to do the holiday parties at school. Let’s ask Dad if he wants to help this year.”
  9. 5-minute favor: “I can’t speak at your event, but I will help you promote it on my blog.”
I also asked my friends Renee Trudeau and Katrina Alcorn — two people who’ve honed their ability to say no well — for their favorite go-to ways to say no. Here are Renee’s favorite ways:
  1.  Just No: “Thanks, I’ll have to pass on that.” (Say it, then shut up.)
  2. Gracious: “I really appreciate you asking me, but my time is already committed.”
  3. I’m Sorry: “I wish I could, but it’s just not going to work right now.”
  4. It’s Someone Else’s Decision: “I promised my coach (therapist, husband, etc.) I wouldn’t take on any more projects right now. I’m working on creating more balance in my life.”
  5. My Family is the Reason: “Thanks so much for the invite, that’s the day of my son’s soccer game, and I never miss those.”
  6. I Know Someone Else: “I just don’t have time right now. Let me recommend someone who may be able to help you.”
  7. I’m Already Booked: “I appreciate you thinking of me, but I’m afraid I’m already booked that day.”
  8. Setting Boundaries: “Let me tell you what I can do…” Then limit the commitment to what will be comfortable for you.
  9. Not No, But Not Yes: “Let me think about it, and I’ll get back to you.”(Renee’s list is from her book The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal.)

And here are the additional ways that Katrina most often says no:

  1. Say nothing: Not all requests require an answer. It feels rude to ignore a request, but sometimes it’s the best way for everyone to save face.
  2. Let it all hang out: Recently my daughter got injured in gym class. It was a week of visits to the ER, the concussion clinic, specialists, etc. I decided to just tell people what was going on, which sort of shut down the requests for a bit.
  3. I’m “maxed out”: We need a “safety word” for saying no — an easy way to tell people that we can’t/won’t do the thing they are requesting, but that it’s not personal. One convenient thing about authoring a book called Maxed Out is that now I can say “I’m maxed out” and people who are familiar with the book know I’m asking them to respect that I’m taking care of myself, and that I also respect their need to take care of themselves.

Step 3: Don’t look back.

Plenty of research suggests that when we make a decision in a way that allows us to change our minds later, we tend to be a lot less happy with the decisions that we make. So once we decline an invitation, we need to make an effort to focus on the good that will come from saying no, not the regret or guilt we feel about turning down an offer. Perhaps we will be better rested because we didn’t go to a party, or we’ll feel less resentful because we let someone else help out. Maybe saying no to one thing frees up time for another (more joyful) activity. Whatever the case may be, focus on the positive outcome of your effort to give good no.

Because that is what all this saying no is really about: Allowing ourselves to really enjoy what we are doing in the moment, whatever that might be.

Comment below: What is your favorite way to say no?