Guarding Your Time: How to Say No

By Jan McDaniel

Feel like you're caught in a whirlwind and can't get out? Do responsibilities consume every moment of your life? Oh no, here comes someone asking you to tackle yet one more task. You have neither the time nor the energy, and even as you smile and say yes, you're resenting another commitment.

In today's fast-paced world, there isn't breathing time anymore, says psychologist Lucille Peszat, director of the Canadian Centre for Stress and Well-Being. Thanks to electronic wonders such as computers, faxes, email, and the Internet, everybody expects things to happen quickly. But in this New Workplace, we're still relying on antiquated survival skills to cope. BlueSuitMoms especially face the phenomenal pressures of working, raising a family and meeting extended family obligations. Failure to stop and relax can result in the devastating consequences of burnout or illness. "For many people, getting sick is the only way off the treadmill," notes Peszat.

Why do we push ourselves beyond what we can realistically handle? Peszat says young women in particular are raised to think nothing is impossible, a myth reinforced by images in the media. We try to be the superperson we feel we should be, striving for perfection. However, as Peszat notes, "Most of us are not quite there yet."

Still, we try to do what we're asked and more. Despite crushing schedules, we take on additional assignments at work, accept speaking engagements, chaperone the class field trip or dog-sit for the neighbor. We believe we need to be available to everybody. If we can't measure up, we feel inadequate. For most of us it's hard to say no. Being needed is a psychological need, and according to Peszat, psychologically some people simply can't say no.

Leadership consultant Millard "Mac" MacAdam says we fail to say no for fear of letting people down. "I see the same issues with men and women. Man or woman, it depends on heart. A heart for being a servant and doing things to help people draws them to say yes when they ought not to. They want to help, think something will be fun and fear offending someone in a worthwhile program." Women, he adds, are sometimes susceptible because we are nurturers by nature.

Meeting these constant demands creates stress overload. Demands take priority, and if we don't stop until can't do any more, we lose control of our lives. The hectic pace leaves very little time for fun, family and quiet reflection, exactly what we need the most, according to Peszat. "If you don't have quiet time every day, you're not really accomplishing much. Before you're exhausted, stop and take a look around. Ask yourself how are you feeling?"

"It's better to say no," MacAdam agrees. Otherwise, in the long run you'll suffer burnout, become frustrated, make mistakes and you will let people down. "The majority of people who have great hearts need to be more discerning."

He advises putting up a shield to avoid what he terms the "tyranny of the urgent." Postpone these things to handle down the line. "The urgent things that come in every day always rob us and take us away from the important." Trying to do everything right away depletes your physical, emotional, financial and time reserves. It also sets you up for an ultimate crunch, whether it's getting sick or plunging into debt.

Once you reach the burnout stage, says Peszat, you don't know how to stop or make things better. Another major problem in taking on more than you know you can handle, is the guilt and anger overcommitment generates. The overloaded person who says yes experiences tremendous emotional feeling, hostility and stress. "You can't afford to take on these emotions or you become a hot pot ready to explode. Guilt is very destructive." She recommends developing stress-release techniques to get rid of not only chronic stress but also emotional baggage.

Peszat says we must stop and consider what today's living is doing to us emotionally. "To keep surviving you need new skills to find some peace of mind and work toward what you want without overload. We have to learn new approaches that are fulfilling and not destructive, do nice things for ourselves and be happier. We each have to periodically take quiet time to think about our life and what we can do to change this pattern." She advises asking yourself, "Can I do anymore? What can I give away?" After answering, revise and adjust.

As a compromise, do what you can within limitations. If you're asked to do too much, maybe there's something else you can do instead or sometime in the future. "If you can't do much more, say no, or if that's impossible, say yes, but. . . Don't push yourself," she says.

In a situation where you don't feel free to decline, you almost have to negotiate. For example, if you're overloaded at work, your boss may ask you to do one more thing you don't have time for. Under pressure, he or she may have lost track of what's humanly possible. "You can't really refuse, but you can say yes, but. . . then list the other things you have to do and their priorities."

MacAdam says the bottom line in scheduling is always, "First things first." He recommends following these coping strategies:

  1.  Have your driving core operating values very, very clear. Figure out your vital goals to achieve what you're about in your life and career. Time with your family? Time with your spouse? Education? Work?

  2.  Filter everything through those vital goals. Does this opportunity fit in with them? Will it express values important to me?

  3.  When you receive a request, ask for time to study it. Think it through and see how it fits with your goals, then get back to the person as soon as you can. He recommends, "This just doesn't fit in with my vital goals at this particular time," as a gracious, inoffensive way to decline.

MacAdam says establishing priorities keeps you connected with what's most important in your life. For example, if he and his wife have a disagreement at breakfast, because his relationship with her is his top priority, he will settle the disagreement even if it means being late for work. Otherwise, he will have gone to the office too upset to work efficiently.

He advises heading off potential crises with kids by developing advance fallback strategies, arrangements with babysitters in case your child gets sick, etc. If your kids create emergencies by waiting until the last minute, don't bail them out. "Let them learn from suffering logical consequences. Six-year-olds can learn to set up a simple calendar system. Teach kids to be responsible rather than doing it all for them."

If you're caught up in a whirlwind, before you say yes again, step out and take some time for yourself. It could be the most important appointment of your day.

Registration for MacAdam's free monthly newsletter, "Mac's Intentional Leadership Integrity Tips" is available through his ProActive Leadership website at

Recommended book:

Also see:

  • Setting boundaries at work
  • Find joy instead of stress in your balancing act
  • Advice for finding work/life balance

    Jan McDaniel is a freelance journalist, former newspaper reporter, and author of 25 romance novels.