It’s 5:30 PM as a write this, and so far today I have received 17 different fully formed “opportunities” for me to give my time, influence or social capital away (for free, naturally). Throw in a looming mountain of laundry and an inconveniently timed dead car battery and it all adds up to the feeling my husband and I call, “pecked to death by ducks.”
Many of the things people want me to support I would totally do…if there were more of me to go around. Make me a couple EricaBots (sorry, I’m re-watching Buffy on Netflix, which you should totally do too.) and I’d be there for everything. Or, you know, a reasonable mechanical facsimile of me would be.
But as long as it’s just me and the day only has those pesky 24 hours, my vocabulary must by necessity be very similar to a 2-year-old: “No, no, no.”
Different people thrive on different levels of activity, but there is no faster way to exhaust yourself than to consistently overbook your time. It took me a rough couple of years — starting with a car-totalling accident, peaking with some scary, fucked-up eye surgery, and eventually leading to antidepressants — for me to really internalize this:
It is perfectly okay to do less, and to say no
politely, promptly and unambiguously.
In fact, saying no is more than okay. It’s liberating. It’s essential.
In a fast moving age where everyone wants a piece of your time, being able to say no to the stuff around the edges frees you to say yes – enthusiastically and wholeheartedly – to the important core of your life.
How to Say No
1. Be Prompt
The person trying to engage your time, money or expertise will appreciate being able to move on to the next person on their list and you won’t have the lingering feeling of “needing to get back to so-and-so” hanging over you. Prompt nos discourage attempts at “time negotiation” on the part of the asker, too.
2. Be Clear
Do not hem or haw or say you’ll think about it or you’re working on it. Default to no and save everyone time. If you change your mind later it’s almost assured that you can step in and add your help to the effort. In the meantime, let the planners or recruiters move on with their job by being clear in your decline.
A clear no is far more polite than a halfhearted, unmeant maybe. Unless you really need time to think about a big decision, do not say, “Let me get back to you.” That just invites a lot of time-wasting back-and-forth, and gives pushy people an opening to keep asking.
3. Don’t Offer Explanations
You don’t have to. If you are in the habit of excusing your nos with long explanations by saying, “Oh, I would, but I already agreed to blah blah blah,” or, “Gee, I’d really love to but that’s the day I wax my toes,” stop it. Just stop it. You are a responsible grown-up. You do not owe anyone outside your boss and your family an explanation for how you prioritize your time.
Polite, Unambiguous Nos Are Best
As long as you are making statements that are about you and not the asker, a polite “no” is not rude and there’s no need to feel guilty for drawing healthy boundaries.
- “I’m not able to commit to that right now.”
- “I’m sorry I can’t take that on.”
- “I know I’ve managed that in the past, but my schedule has changed and I won’t be able to this time.”
- “That’s not in our family’s budget at the moment.”
- “That time is already allocated.” It doesn’t matter if you’ve allocated that time to sleeping, seeing your kid at the dinner table, or just catching up on old movies with a friend. You can allocate your time as you need to for the good of your sanity and home.
Nos In The Family
Parents, this goes for kids, too. We all want the best for our little ones, and I think it’s awesome for kids to have a full, well-rounded exposure to multiple sports, languages, musical endeavors and the like, and if your high schooler is in a varsity sport or something, then it’s great that she’s learning about the commitment level that takes.
But I’m periodically shocked by the number of activities some of my suburban peer families engage in every day. I’m not sure when it became normal for young kids to participate in two or three after school activities every single day, but I know that accommodating that kind of schedule can be difficult for the entire family. If that kind of busy schedule isn’t appropriate for your family’s values, time or financial budget, you can limit it.
Older kids can be part of this decision making. For example, you can say: “I’m in a position to pay for one after school activity this quarter. I’ll support you in whichever one you choose. Let me know.” With that, you’ve empowered your child to prioritize their time and assess what’s really meaningful to them.
A Refresher Course on No
Even though I learned my lesson about taking on too much the hard way, I’ve found the lesson of saying no needs re-learning occasionally. I like to go big (while nearly always staying home) and my natural inclination will probably always be to bite off a bit more than I can comfortably chew. Perhaps you are like this too.
Pushing to learn more, get stronger, grow more or be a better parent or partner is pretty awesome. Taking on new challenges is wonderful – and I never want to stagnate. But my plate has been far too full for too long. I can feel it, and for me, that way lies madness.
I know it’s up to me to redefine those boundaries so I can refocus on what’s important – family, friends, my home and garden, my storytelling and teaching.
So please excuse me while I go email 17 people with a polite but confident “no.”
What can you say no to, today?