Q: Saying "no" is really hard for me, so I end up with way too many commitments. As a result, I am overextended and don't have enough time to myself. How do I get out of this hole — and stay out of it?
A: Develop criteria for saying "yes" and stick with them.
The inner game
It's important to know why you don't like to say no: Are you afraid people will be angry, dislike you, or not help you in the future? Perhaps you equate your personal value with what you can do for people. Settle in to reflect upon what the world would look like if you felt more free, imagining a time without obligations and "should dos."
Now begin to fill your blank slate by imagining the activities you'd say yes to. Notice your physical reaction if something you don't really want to do creeps in — is there tension anywhere? Pay close attention because this will help you make choices in the future.
Think a bit more about your "yeses" and answer the big questions — what, why, where, how, and with whom, to help clarify any patterns. Again, notice physical or emotional effects if you try to force in something that you'd rather not do.
Consider what you need in terms of personal time. And, importantly, do you feel guilty when you think about setting aside time for yourself? If so, this could derail your plans to move toward more balance. Focus on letting go of the guilt; after all, you can't really help others effectively if you're not taken care of.
The outer game
At work, with family, and in the broader community, you'll be faced with demands on your time. Your choices and options may be different in each, but some of the strategies will be consistent.
First, consider whether saying no is really an option. For example, at work, a request may be a politely phrased expectation. There are likely other requests that aren't really discretionary. If you can't delegate or modify them, accept them and don't tie up emotional energy fretting about them.
Next, plan ahead, thinking about requests that are likely going to come your way. For example, is your church likely to ask you to lead the spring fundraiser? If you don't want to do it, at least three options come to mind:
• Proactively let them know you're not available this year (especially if you've done the task before).
• Think through something you are willing to do: "I am not available for x, but am happy to help with y."
• Be prepared to say "no thank you" when asked — and to stick to it.
More about that last option. It's not easy, so practice it, and don't elaborate with reasons. It's enough that you're not available — no excuses needed.
If a request takes you by surprise, always answer, "Let me give it some thought." This will serve you well whether you ultimately say yes or no. And then think it through, returning to the response options above.
The last word
It is truly OK to help out others when and how you choose; learning to say no will help you accomplish this.
What challenges do you face at work? Send your questions to Liz Reyer, a credentialed coach and president of Reyer Coaching & Consulting in Eagan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.