How to Say No Politely and Get Your Time Back
For some people life post-lockdown means full diaries of events and socialising – but what if it feels like too much?
Dr Andy Cope reveals how to say no politely and get some of your time back to yourself
If setting boundaries is something you really struggle with, maybe therapy could help – find yours here
I’ve gotten myself into a situation and I suspect I’m not the only one. Fortieth birthdays, funeral memorial ‘parties’, weddings, leaving dos, engagements, nights out… these things have been rolled over during lockdown and now they’re resurfacing. Factor Christmas in and I’m looking at a very busy autumn and winter.
In fact, this is how silly it’s getting – on Christmas Eve, I’m invited to a friend’s Christmas dinner that was rolled over from last Christmas. So, in effect, I’m having two consecutive Christmas days.
For the record, I don’t want two consecutive Christmas days! Basically, I’ve gone from social distancing to social pile-up at warp factor speed.
Which has gotten me thinking about how to say ‘no’. It’s something I’ve always struggled with. I’m pretty much a ‘yes’ man, not because I necessarily want to say ‘yes’ but because I feel rude when I say ‘no’. I’m a people pleaser. The problem is that the only person who I’m not pleasing is myself!
I’m a psychologist, so I ‘get’ what’s happening. As social beings, we fear upsetting others. We’re scared of missing out. We like to be part of the crowd. We struggle with decision making. It’s easier to say ‘yes’.
And there’s the irony. For years, I knew what I wanted to say ‘no’ to but could never go through with it.
The consequences of accepting every request are impractical. You fill your calendar with unimportant tasks that add no value to your life. An overly busy calendar can feel overwhelming. Your impact and productivity ebbs away. Even if you don’t openly admit it, you’re likely to feel angry, resentful and anxious. Over-commitment also risks damage to your reputation. If you let people down or become known as someone with hollow promises, people will stop trusting you.
The fear of missing out (FOMO) is another reason why people struggle with ‘no’. As social beings, we base our beliefs on the current values of society. Currently, ‘status’ is right up there. Image and popularity are highly prized. Success is measured in material things, and by the way we look and are perceived by others. There’s a certain kudos in looking at your diary, seeing that it’s bulging at the seams, and thinking ‘Gosh, look how important I must be, to have all these people vying for my attention!’
Being busy has become a badge of honour. Nowadays, the standard answer to ‘How are you?’ is ‘Oh, you know, keeping busy.’
So here’s the brutal truth. If there’s something missing in your life, it’s probably you! Therefore, learning to say ‘no’ means you can start to put yourself centre stage of your life.
I often share the following fact with my audiences: the average human has about 2.5 billion heartbeats. Sure, that’s a decent enough number, but if you drill down it equates to 29,000 days or 4,000 weeks. Time is a finite resource. The clocks have eyes. They’re watching you, ticking your life away.
How to say ‘no’ politely
How to say ‘no’ politely is a prized skill. In fact, I’d go as far as suggesting it’s a superpower. So here’s my guide to being a ‘No’ man, and it starts with two facts: First, if you put your mind to it you can do anything, but not everything. Second, you can be a good person, with a kind heart, and still say ‘no’.
It wasn’t until recently that I realised the obvious fact that every ‘yes’ has an opportunity cost. When you say ‘yes’, you are saying ‘no’ to something else. So, saying ‘yes’ to a work project means you might be saying ‘no’ to family time. Saying ‘yes’ to a night out means you are saying ‘no’ to a quiet night in. Saying ‘yes’ to several nights out means I’m also saying ‘yes’ to several hangovers as well as ‘yes’ to exhaustion and regret.
So here are some soft touch ‘no’s. You can hone them into your own language, but these are the basics:
- I'm honoured but I can't
- I wish there were two of me
- Unfortunately, now is not a good time
- Sorry, I'm booked into something else right now
- Damn, not able to fit this one in!
- Sadly, I have something else
- No, thank you but it sounds lovely, so next time
When you first start out, it’s going to be difficult. You might find it easier to say ‘no’ via text or email as you’re getting to grips with this new behaviour. Relax, the modern world deems this to be socially acceptable. Think of texting and email as your ‘no’ baby steps. Small steps in the right direction.
I’ve also found that it’s perfectly acceptable to say that I need to check my diary. Then, afterwards, politely decline. You can soften the ‘no’ blow by using pre-prepared statements you are comfortable with that you can tweak to fit different circumstances:
Work colleague: ‘Would you like to come to my rolled-over 50th?’
Your initial response: ‘That’s very kind of you, thank you for the offer. I’ll check my diary and let you know.’
Your follow up: ‘Hi, James, thanks for the invite to the party. I’ve checked my diary, and unfortunately, I can’t make it. Have a fantastic time!’
Despite what your emotional brain might believe, ‘no’ doesn’t have to equate to rejection. When used simply and with honesty, it’s a statement about your current situation. People will realise that ‘no’ is actually about you and that it’s not a rejection of them.
If you are someone that rarely says ‘no’, people might be surprised to hear the word pass your lips at first. Don’t be deterred. As you use it more frequently, they will grow accustomed to the fact that you exercise your right to choose.
After all, saying ‘no’ saves time for you to say ‘yes’ when you want to. You’ll soon realise what I’ve realised; less is indeed more! My happiness and sanity aren’t enhanced by the quantity of events I attend, but by the quality.
The ‘busyness’ epidemic
It boils down to a very big point. ‘Busyness’ is a word of the modern age. It’s wangled its way into the dictionary. Busyness is an epidemic. We have too many emails, meetings appointments, places to be and things to do. Learning to say ‘no’ to the right things shifts you from a human doing to a human being.
I’ll finish with a free gift. This is my ‘no’ email, carefully crafted to excuse myself from things I could do, but that crowd out what I actually want to do: Thank you very much for your kind invitation. Unfortunately, I am trying to buy back a little time in my life by saying ‘no’ to interesting things that I’d ordinarily love to say ‘yes’ to. Apologies not to be saying ‘yes’ this time. I hope you’ll understand.
If all else fails, cushion your ‘no’ in the ultimate velvet glove and go with my grandma’s classic; ‘I love you, but no.’
Dr Andy Cope is an author, keynote speaker, happiness researcher and recovering academic. He teamed up with Prof Paul McGee for his latest book, The Happiness Revolution: A Manifesto for Living Your Best Life