These days all it takes is a few taps on your smartphone to connect with friends, make a dinner res, take a workout class, or even book a doctor’s appointment. The result: It’s easy to be overscheduled and overcommitted 24/7.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re not alone. I didn't realize how bad it had gotten for me until I had to tell a friend I couldn’t meet that night for a drink—but I’d be free Wednesday, two weeks from now, after a work dinner. What?! My life is pretty normal, but there's a problem: I can't say no.
Call it the “disease to please,” explains Sue Johnston, a communications coach. “Lots of us are people-pleasers by nature.” The biggest reason we’re reluctant to turn down invitations: We don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. Yet our inability to say no could also stem from a desire to avoid confrontation, impress our boss, or even gain more Instagram likes.
Unfortunately, sometimes we give so much that we have nothing left, Johnston says. A mile-long to-do list and jam-packed calendar is a surefire way to increase stress in all parts of our lives.
The solution: Put your own needs first. Think about the typical flight attendant spiel, Johnston says: “In case of emergency, put your oxygen mask on first, then help others around you.” Translation: If you can barely breathe from various obligations and meetings and coffee dates, you won’t be able to fully support others when it matters. That’s why it’s important to actually make time for that gym session, extra hour of sleep, or quiet night at home.
The first step is to harness the power of “no.” Sure, it may feel “not nice” at first, but with practice, you can learn to say it sincerely and politely—in a way that won't P.O. anyone. Here, experts share how to do just that in 10 different scenarios.
1. A Request for Career Advice
The scene: Your friend’s younger cousin asks to "pick your brain" about your career over coffee, but you’re swamped at work.
The solution: We get it: It can be annoying when someone you don’t know wants free advice. While you’re not obligated to meet with everyone, it is nice to offer something—especially when it’s a personal connection, says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. Say, “It’s a busy season for us right now, but I’d be happy to talk to you when things slow down after the holidays.” It’s better to postpone a meeting than not give your full attention to the person when you meet, she explains.
If it's a random LinkedIn user you don’t know, be polite, but set boundaries, says Don Gabor, communications trainer and author of How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends. Respond with, “I’m not sure coffee would be possible, but if you have a specific question, I’m happy to answer it over the phone.” Give the call a time limit—and once that limit is up, make a polite exit.
2. Going Out to a Fancy Dinner
The scene: Your friend wants to grab dinner at a (pricey!) new restaurant, but you’re exhausted, and your bank account is hovering around, oh, $25.
The solution: Be honest and sincere, Gottsman says. Try: “I really appreciate the invitation and I’m anxious to see you, but this is not the best week. Can we rain check?” It’s not a hard “no,” just “no for now," she explains. “We all get tied up and overcommitted, and if they’re a true friend, they’ll understand.“ If it’s more about the price of the restaurant, suggest going to a less formal spot or grabbing coffee instead, Gabor says.
3. A Second Date
The scene: You get asked out on a second date after a dismal first one. (Clearly your wannabe paramour didn’t get the point of your “early meeting“ excuse when you called it a night after one drink.)
The solution: In this scenario, you want to be honest and respectful, but succinct, Gottsman explains. “Thanks so much for the invite, but I have to pass,” should do the trick. And you don’t need to explain yourself: “A lot of people get awkward about the 'pregnant pause,' but you don’t have to fill it!” she says. If they persist a second or third time, stay strong—they’ll get the hint, Gabor says.
What you shouldn't do: Be brutally honest. No need to tell him that you’d never date a guy who supports Trump, or that girls who wear glasses aren't your type.
4. Donating Your Time
The scene: You’re asked to volunteer for a charity event, but you just don’t have time this year.
The solution: Come on, it’s for charity—you have to say yes, right? Not so fast. “You can’t say yes to every single request for your time or energy,” Gottsman says. “You have to pick and choose.” Tell the inquirer you’ve already committed to X and Y events this year, and you have to sit this one out, she suggests. It’s better than agreeing to help with the charity bake sale, then showing up with a bag of store-bought cookies because you didn’t have time to whip up your famous homemade banana bread.
5. A Holiday Party
The scene: You’re invited to a holiday party where you won’t know anyone—and attending alone sounds about as appealing as getting your wisdom teeth pulled.
The solution: You may not want to hear it, but if you don’t have a good reason not to go, you should go, Gabor says. “Even if it’s uncomfortable, sometimes it’s really good to get out of your comfort zone and see what might happen. You never know who you'll meet or what connections you'll make.”
If you don't want to go due to an already hectic schedule, keep it short and sweet: Acknowledge the invitation graciously, and say you won’t be able to attend. Skip the “I have to work late that night” white lie, Gabor says. “You don’t have to give a reason you can’t go.”
6. Happy Hour With Coworkers
The scene: Your coworkers ask you to come to happy hour, but you’ve been looking forward to a 6 p.m. spin class.
The solution: Tell them, “Sounds like fun, but I’m going to take a pass tonight. I have a prior commitment,” Gottsman says. That should be plenty, but working in close quarters can lead to follow-up questions. If they press you, tell them, “I scheduled a workout tonight, and I will really feel bad if I skip the gym again!” Gottsman suggests. Remember: You have to set your own priorities and respect them as well.
However, sometimes you’ve got to take one for the team (literally). Networking events are one of those things you’ve just got to do: It’s “mandatory fun,” as Gottsman says. Plus, if you decline multiple invitations from colleagues, it could damage the way you're perceived at work, Gabor says. People want to know what you’re like outside the office, he explains. What's more: “The fact that everyone uses electronic communication has cut down our face-to-face time, so it's smart to seize an opportunity to interact with colleagues in person.“
Now, staying out late after a work dinner for even more drinks at the bar? That you can skip, Gottsman says.
7. Staying Late at Work (Again)
The scene: Your boss is always asking you to stay late at work.
The solution: Here’s another time when every so often, it’s just something you have to do. But if it’s a consistent pattern, be confident and assertive without coming across as aggressive or negative, Gottsman explains. Tell him, “When I learn I have to stay late last minute, I’ve had to miss events with my kids/ had to cancel on my rec league soccer team, etc., so I’d really appreciate a day or so heads up.”
Next time it's 4:52 p.m. and your boss asks for a lengthy report by EOD, but you really need to leave the office, explain the situation sincerely: “I have a personal commitment tonight I can't miss. I’m happy to come in early tomorrow or make some time now, but I have to be at X place by 6:30 p.m.“ Just remember, there’s a fine line between setting boundaries and being insubordinate, Gottsman says.
8. Meeting Up With an Acquaintance
The scene: An old acquaintance wants to meet up for a drink, but frankly, there’s a good reason you haven’t seen this person in a year.
The solution: “This gets a little sticky: You don’t want to be offensive, but you’re not obligated to go,” Gottsman says. You can try saying, “Thanks for the invitation, but I’m tied up that night,” and don’t offer an alternative date. After one or two times, they should get the drift. Gabor adds that this is one of those situations where you can offer a white lie: “I’m really up to my eyeballs in work right now and this isn’t a good time for me.” And leave it at that.
On the other hand, he says, sometimes it can be beneficial, personally or professionally, to catch up with an old college buddy or former coworker. “Give it a shot if you don't have a real reason not to,“ he suggests. “You could turn out to have a lot more in common than you originally thought!“
9. A Destination Wedding
The scene: You’re invited to a destination wedding that’s going to set you back a month’s rent.
The solution: When you RSVP to decline, send a nice note saying, “Your wedding sounds fabulous and I can’t wait to see the pictures, but it’s a hardship on my budget right now. I will be there in spirit, but I can’t make the trip,” Gottsman says.
If you’re uncomfortable discussing your financial situation, don’t feel pressured: Your finances are a private matter.
The same goes if you’re asked to be a bridesmaid, but it's not something you can take on at the moment. ”Let your friend know that you love her, you'll support her marriage, and you're happy to help in other ways, but you can’t make the financial or time commitments that are involved in being a bridesmaid,” Gottsman says. If you’re uncomfortable discussing your financial situation, don’t feel pressured: Your finances are a private matter, Gabor says, and you don’t have to tell everyone everything about your life.
If they push you—”I really counted on you to be there”—don’t be afraid to be firm. Say, “I really count on you to understand. I know you wouldn’t want me to be in a position where I need to choose between the wedding and paying my rent,” Gottsman says.
10. A Job Interview Request
The scene: A recruiter from another company asks you to interview for an open position you’re not interested in.
The solution: Keep it simple. “It’s flattering to be considered, but I’m happy where I am right now”—that’s all you need to say, Gabor says. Still, it never hurts to get to know other people in your industry, he adds. “It may be worth taking the meeting for the sake of talking to new people and learning about other companies. Then you can make the decision that’s best for you.“
The Bottom Line
It's nice to be nice, but knowing when (and how) to say no is crucial to your sanity. Wielding the power of those two little letters requires tact, manners, and courage, but the payoff is worth it.
One final strategy if it's really hard to turn someone down: Buy yourself time, Gabor says. Tell them you'll get back to them the next day, and work up the courage to say no (nicely), or who knows: You may decide to take them up on the invite.