Can’t say no?: 8 ways to take back your time

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Feeling overwhelmed has become an integral part of the college experience. Why is it so tempting to take on more than we can reasonably manage? Saying “no” is crucial for our time management, healthy relationships, and emotional well-being—and it’s a learned skill. Here’s how you can get more comfortable setting boundaries with your friends and peers, professors, bosses, and family.


Overwhelming group project

“I was asked to do extra tasks for a group project because everyone else was ‘too busy.” I felt like the whole project was being dumped on me. But I didn’t say no because I didn’t want to be ‘the bad guy’ or ‘not a team player.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Old Dominion University, Virginia

Call it as you see it: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”

How to handle group dynamics

Saying “no” can be really hard, especially when we are worried about what people will think of us. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 40 percent of respondents, when thinking about an incident in which they took on too much, said it happened because they didn’t want people to feel badly towards them.

It is normal to worry about what other people think of us if we decline their requests. But because of what psychologists sometimes call the “harshness bias,” we often believe that people may judge us more negatively than they actually do. The reality is that most people won’t think less of you if you say no. Your group likely won’t think that you aren’t a great team player if you don’t take on an unfair share—after all, where is the team in that? In fact, people tend to respect us more when we are able to set healthy limits.

How best to say no in this situation? Take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of the group, but in the long run it always feels better than being dumped on.


A hard-to-resist party invitation

“My roommates invited me to a party, but I had economics homework due. I should have stayed home but I didn’t, and I failed the class.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Prairie View A&M University, Texas

Reference your crystal ball: “Right now, I want to go with you to more than you can imagine. But I know that I will regret it if I do. I can see my future if I go to that party, and it isn’t pretty.”

How to not go to a party

Yikes. That’s a high cost to pay for not saying no. Parties and social events pack a powerful pleasure punch that our brains tend to drive us towards. We human beings are social animals, and we like to feel a part of our tribe. Denying the clan can feel threatening—both to us and to our friends. Saying “yes” can make us feel secure and joyful to be a part of things.

We human beings will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will be best for our future, especially when the present option is as pleasure-packed as a party, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. In our survey, one in four students, when thinking of a specific incident in which they regretted saying yes, said it was because they didn’t think the decision through.

We can make better decisions by picturing the future as clearly as we can, rather than thinking about what we will miss out on now. Think about the last time you skipped homework for a party. What happened? Ask yourself: What will I look and feel like tomorrow morning if I don’t stay in and study tonight? Remember: There will be other parties.


A pile-up of club responsibilities

“As a club leader I have more than enough responsibilities. People ask me to also take care of theirs. Even though I don’t have time, I often help them out. This usually hurts me, and those people rarely return the favor.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Towson University, Maryland

Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities this week.”

How to control your role

You aren’t alone. Thirty-eight percent of students in our survey said that in a specific incident in which they regretted saying yes, they had been helping someone out. Another 12 percent had said they would help but then had to bail later. Why do we say yes even when we know we don’t have time?

It’s counterintuitive, but being short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. The busier we get, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time saying “no” to the next request, according to Harvard behavioral scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton economist Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Picador, 2013). Here’s the solution:

Practice your reason for saying no before you need it:
“I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities this week.”

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say “no” rather than “yes” to requests by rehearsing a go-to response. When we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely to honor our initial intentions, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.


An unethical academic favor

“Someone who was struggling in their personal life asked me if they could copy my homework. I felt bad for them, so I let them. The professor found out and we were reprimanded.”
—First-year graduate student, California State University, San Bernardino

Say no clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words: “I’m so sorry and I wish I could help. But academic integrity is important to me.”

How to honor your values

Americans tend to admire strong individuals who don’t cave in the face of peer pressure. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reject an unethical request. In a series of studies published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2014), psychologists had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts, such as vandalizing a library book by writing the word “pickle” in it.

Half of the people asked to do something unethical did it. To say no to a request like this is even more difficult when it comes from a friend. To do so, we need to put our values front and center, reminding ourselves—and our friends—what matters most.

In this situation, two things are important: your compassion for your friend’s troubles, and your own integrity. Express both of these.

Say no clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words, if necessary: “I’m so sorry that you are struggling right now, and I wish I could help. But I can’t let you copy my homework. Academic integrity is really important to me.”

“No” may be very difficult for your friend to hear—as difficult as it is for you to say. Stand your ground. Repeat your compassionate decline as many times as you need to. By using the same words with each repetition, you indicate to your friend that you aren’t going to be influenced, no matter how much pressure he or she lays on. It might help if you steer your friend toward tutoring or other supports.


A badly-timed family event

“My dad’s birthday party was the same day as my midterm. I studied all night, then went to his party, hurting my grade.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, California State University, Northridge

Fight fire with fire: Tell your close friend or family member that you’ll get back to them shortly. Then find an advocate (Mom?) and let them say no for you.

How to take the pressure out of family

It can be especially hard to say “no” to our nearest and dearest. Nearly 60 percent of our survey respondents reported that they said yes to an invitation when they wanted to say no because the person who asked was a friend or a close acquaintance.

This dilemma is what Professor Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at Duke University, calls the “curse of familiarity.” “When I receive formal invitations from people I don’t know, it is relatively easy to politely turn down their offer,” he wrote on his PBS blog Need to Know. “But…the better I know someone, the harder it is to say, ‘No, sorry, you know I would really love to come, but I just can’t.”

Fight fire with fire: Tell your close friend or family member that you’ll get back to them shortly. Then, try to recruit an advocate who is close to the person asking you for a favor—and let them say no for you.

In the above example, the undergraduate could have enlisted her mother to explain to her dad why she couldn’t make the birthday party, and to make a counter-request: Could she and her father celebrate his birthday the following weekend, after the exam period?

If necessary, point out that academics are your top priority for now and blowing off an exam could be an expensive mistake.


Situation at work

“I will often say yes to a boss who asks me if I can stay late, because I want to help out and be viewed as a hard worker. But it always ends up messing up my sleeping schedule and affects my schooling.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

Create a concrete excuse: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

How to set boundaries with your boss

Forty-three percent of students in our survey reported that saying “no” to requests that they don’t have time for is “very difficult” or “usually a struggle.”

We sometimes say “yes” in an attempt to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying no, according to Columbia psychologists Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008). Fortunately, there are ways to make our “no” feel more comfortable.

It’s hardest to decline a request when our reasons for doing so are vague or abstract, especially if we have to do it face-to-face. A way to ease this difficulty can be to make your excuses more concrete. “I won’t get enough sleep,” is a weak explanation. But if you actually block off “sleep” and “study” time on your calendar, you’ll be able to clearly see when you do and don’t have time to work late. That way, you’ll be able to say no with more conviction.

Create a concrete excuse: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

When you have your most important priorities already blocked off on your calendar, you’ll be able to see when you actually do have time to help out. Offering those times to help out can make saying “no” even easier.


Yet another budget buster

“People always wanted to go to the café, and I blew through my café points. So I paid with real money, to the dismay of my wallet.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Mount Ida College, Massachusetts

Offer an alternative: “I’ve spent my weekly budget at the café this week, so I can’t go with you. Are you up for meeting me outside to eat?”

How to avoid a financial hit

Ah, yes: The future is always greener. It can be hardest to say no to something that won’t affect us until far into the future.

Research has shown how our choices are influenced by our timeframe. We tend to make better decisions for ourselves when we are making those decisions for the present rather than for the future, according to professors Gal Zauberman and John Lynch (Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 2006). Knowing this, we can make more constructive choices by shortening the timeframe. For example, in this case, you could make a weekly budget for yourself to guide your choices about where to eat. If you still have café points in a given week, by all means join your friends there. But if you used them up, you’ll have to wait until next week.

It can also help to present an alternative that works better for you. If the only alternative is “eating alone upstairs”—which sounds lonely—that makes it harder to be disciplined and stick to your budget or any other external limit that you’ve imposed. Give yourself a more appealing option.


A request from a higher-up

“If a professor or someone in a higher position asks you a favor, it’s hard to say no because you don’t want to leave a bad impression. And you don’t want to regret it because that professor might help you find a job later.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

Take time to consider: “Thanks for the opportunity. I’ll look at the timeframe and get back to you.”

How to say no to your professor

We do a lot in life out of fear of regretting not doing it: 35 percent of our survey respondents, recalling a specific incident, acknowledged that they said yes because they were worried that they might regret saying no. And when someone higher up asks for a favor in person, it can be that much harder to say no.

In these cases, we do well to resist the urge to give an immediate response. That way we can make a decision in a less pressured environment, and give the higher-up a response via text or email later. Don’t forget to get back to them.

Take time to consider: “Thanks for the opportunity. I’ll look at the timeframe and get back to you.”

When we buy ourselves time to make a more careful decision, we can think about what we are and are not likely to regret—and make sure that if we do say yes, we get what we are hoping for out of the action. This can mean pairing a “yes” answer with a request that they return the favor: “I’d love to help you out. Do you think that you could also help me? I’m looking for a job and I’m wondering if you have any leads.”

Christine Carter

Expert: Dr. Christine Carter is a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. She is author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine, 2015), and Raising Happiness (Ballantine, 2011).