How do I say No to stuff I would actually like to do?
January 24, 2023 7:01 PM   Subscribe

All the advice I've been able to find on saying No to requests for my time/effort assumes that I'm saying no because I don't actually want to do that thing, and just need a way to let someone down politely. But I have ongoing requests for side projects that I'd enjoy, from people I like. My life is too busy for me to say yes to all of them, but I wish I could. Everyone knows I want to do them, so they keep asking. If I manage to bow out, it becomes temporary because people ask again later. How can I say no to stuff and mean it, and convey that I mean it to people who will be disappointed that I'm not doing the thing?

Details in case they're useful:
- I'm a people-pleaser, trying to get over that, but it's probably the biggest hurdle here
- the nice people are also persistent and enthusiastic
- the projects are usually interesting and would help my community, but other people could do them instead of me
- there aren't a lot of other people volunteering for this stuff
- saying yes over the last few years has led to me feeling stressed, being flaky on projects which could do with reliable support, and not having enough time for things which really do need to be done by me.
posted by harriet vane to Human Relations (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Actually it sounds like you're already doing a great job!! "I'd love to but I can't. Good luck!" People who keep asking after a clear no are being rude and/or desperate.
posted by smorgasbord at 7:17 PM on January 24 [11 favorites]

I can't pretend to be any better than you are at handling such situations. But one thing I try to do is remind myself that in an emergency on an airplane, you put your own oxygen mask on first before helping others. You're no help to anyone, including yourself, if you can't breathe. The wisdom is that to help others you have to take care of yourself.

There's nothing wrong with telling people look, I'd love to be involved but I just don't have the time/energy/bandwidth right now. I'm afraid that if I did get involved I'd do abad job, or be cranky, or .... and I don't think anyone wants that. Let's check in later and see how things are going then.

Anyway I hope there's something in my babble that you can use. Good luck!
posted by abucci at 7:21 PM on January 24

I just don't have the time/energy/bandwidth right now

I think answers like this are how you get repeated requests. If I were your friend or colleague and had something that I thought you'd enjoy doing and be good at, I'd probably think I was doing you a favor by bringing it up again. Is it possible that as a "people pleaser" you're telling these people "no" with a little white lie like this? Instead, why not tell them no, for the reasons you listed :

saying yes over the last few years has led to me feeling stressed, being flaky on projects which could do with reliable support, and not having enough time for things which really do need to be done by me

And telling them that you'll contact them if it turns out you're able to do it, or just something like "and I don't think I'll have space for it in the foreseeable future" if you don't think you'll ever be able to.
posted by LionIndex at 7:29 PM on January 24 [12 favorites]

I really want to help you with something like this when my calendar clears up in June! Please ask me again then!

Then in June you say you're still very busy but ask again in December. Or you take something else off your plate so you can say yes in June.

Telling people when they can ask again without being a bother is a huge help for these kinds of things.

Also, keep in mind that for many things, the way to please people the most is by telling them the truth about you so that they can care for you as a valued member of their community and/or friend.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 8:21 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

"Sounds like a great project! I'm not able to devote any time to it, but best of luck finding the right person to take this on."
posted by brook horse at 8:26 PM on January 24 [3 favorites]

You might try "my life is just too busy right now, what with (work kids project crisis whatever is genuinely keeping you from doing something you actually want to do), but I appreciate the offer", then if they bring it up again just go "yeah, but, work/school/family comes first, sorry. But tell me about (subject change)?
posted by The otter lady at 9:19 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

If it's from people you like and a project you want to do then I think it's great to be honest with yourself and them. Acknowledge that you really want to do the project but you just don't have the time. I think the hardest part is to actually decide for yourself if you really are a "no". As long as you remain on the fence other people will sense that, especially if they're boundary pushers. Sit with the disappointment of needing to turn down a positive opportunity because you don't have enough time and once you've really made your decision then you can tell them transparently "ugh I love working with you and the project sounds great. I'm so tempted, but if I do this I know I'll be in over my head between work and home commitments so I sadly need to decline".
posted by aaabbbccc at 9:24 PM on January 24 [2 favorites]

"If I ever finish [thing], I would definitely try to find time, but until then it just makes me sad to be tempted. Could you please find out if I'm free in the future before asking? Otherwise, I'm just too tempted to say yes, and that leads to more disappointment (and damage to my reputation! and to those I work with!)."
posted by amtho at 9:39 PM on January 24

"I do not have capacity for this, thank you so much. If you ask me again in the future, I will probably have to turn it down. If you ask me within this time frame, I will be honored but most likely be unable to commit. I am happy to attend the event and support in a lower capacity, but I will not be available for organizing duties."

This is from 10+ years of experience in grassroots organizing/academia/non-profit queer trans people of color organizing spaces. Capacity is the optimal word here. Say no in very creative ways, and keep saying no!
posted by yueliang at 1:50 AM on January 25 [13 favorites]

I think part of this is unfortunately just consistency and persistence on your part. You're doing well, it just takes time to fully remove yourself as a potential candidate for Doing Stuff in some people's minds. If you still do some things in the same "space," versus dropping out completely, it'll probably take longer and/or require firmer boundaries. For example, I have a program I am very explicit about doing one thing for, and at this point I've said "I only do X" enough times that it seems firmly associated with me and sometimes others will even say it for me in my absence. Occasionally someone will ask me to do X for a different program, and then I just say, sorry, don't have the capacity to branch out. (Capacity really is a good word.) So I guess, if there's a way to collectively and concisely define what you are willing/able to do, that might help. Or if it's "I can't take on any more duties/projects," that too is nicely straightforward (for you as well as them!) and also saves you from "what about Y? what about Z?" once you've said it enough times.
posted by teremala at 4:39 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

A good suggestion from an odd source (sobriety programs): play the tape forward. Communicate (to yourself and others) how doing one thing you'd like to do requires sacrifices related something else that you want to do more. THis is a great approach because it makes room for expressing your enthusiasm about this thing you regretfully have to turn down, which kinda keeps you in the loop for future opportunities (and friendship with like-minded people). "I'd love to do X but it would make my work on Y suffer. Once I finish Y, though, I'll give you a call and see if you still need help with X!"
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:37 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

You can be effusive about the project Gee, that park sure could use some love and still decline I wish I had the time and energy to help, but I'm not taking on any new stuff at all right now. and offer whatever help you may have to give I'm seeing my pal Lee tomorrow, I'll ask them if they have any interest. and appreciate for their efforts It's great that you're doing this; if I can send volunteers your way, I will. Then, just reiterate I'm not taking on any new stuff at all right now, even great projects like this.

People like to talk about their projects, ask them about it, praise and enthuse; that's a form of help because it energizes them. Connecting them with anyone who might want to help is a really good thing, too.
posted by theora55 at 8:06 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

ā€œIā€™m fully committed right now/for the next few weeks/months.ā€
posted by bluebird at 11:59 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

So I'm actually getting slightly mixed messages from your question and title--do you want to do the stuff (when you have time) or do you realistically think you're never going to have time and you don't want to hear about it again?

I really want to help you with something like this when my calendar clears up in June! Please ask me again then!

This approach works for me. Putting a date on when your dance card might free up should get people to not ask that until them. It can even be "next year."

I wouldn't do this if you want people to drop it completely and forever, though.
posted by mark k at 5:22 PM on January 25 [1 favorite]

How to say no
posted by falsedmitri at 12:53 PM on January 26

Response by poster: Thankyou for all these responses, they're really useful. A few of you saw mixed messages from my question and you're spot on - I would like to do this stuff, but there is other stuff I would *love* to do, and still more things I *need* to do. And there are only so many hours in the day, and days in a life. I say yes to this category of project because I think they're useful, and because I can do them, and someone asked me nicely.

But these projects get in the way of other parts of my life, so I end up resenting them. If I spend the time on them that they deserve, I don't have time for more important things. But if I say yes then don't give them the time they deserve, I feel so guilty I procrastinate on half the other stuff anyway. I figured that one way to break this loop would be to pick say, the top 1 or 2 things, and learn to say no to things 3, 4 and 5. (That's not even considering projects 6 to 32 which I've already given up hope of doing but would absolutely do if all it took was just a wave of a magic wand to get them done.)

And it's not really the fault of people who ask me. As mentioned above, they think they're doing me a favour, and we like doing stuff together, and honestly they must be able to tell that my Nos and Maybe Laters on this mid-tier stuff are very tenuous and conflicted. But there are more things to do than people to do them, and me flogging myself to do more doesn't actually change that. It just leads to burnout. I'm trying to get to a sustainable point, where I can contribute but don't try to take on more than I can realistically manage.
posted by harriet vane at 7:35 AM on January 27

« Older Attaching electrical wiring to a sliding window   |   How can I find Youtube videos I've watched Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments