How to Protect Your Schedule: Say “NO” With Strength Instead of Guilt
How do I stick to my schedule when sudden and spontaneous requests catch me off guard, and I agree to them even though I don’t really want to? This is one of the most common questions I receive in regards to procrastination and productivity.
You may be on your way home from grocery shopping and run into an old friend. You planned to work on an important project, but you agree to grab coffee instead.
Or you have the evening planned for working on your Master thesis, but you give in to your flatmate’s request to watch a movie.
Or you agree to go on a spontaneous weekend trip with your sister even though you promised yourself to do some cleaning and housekeeping.
These are assertiveness issues. In terms of the four communication styles – aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive, and assertive – you are communicating too passively or not assertively enough.
You fail to say no and let others dictate your schedule. You’re afraid of hurting their feelings, so you put their needs above yours.
If you were more assertive, you would be able to accept only the requests you sincerely wish to take. And you would decline the others with strength and sympathy, instead of guilt.
This article helps you make this your reality. You’ll discover two in-the-moment strategies for saying no more effectively, one reflection exercise for generally becoming more assertive, and several mindset shifts that help you feel more confident and less guilty in your new behavior.
1. Buy Time
If you tend to agree to requests automatically, the first thing to learn is to buy yourself time. Instead of saying yes immediately, you respond with a phrase, such as:
- “I’ll need to check my calendar. Let me get back to you in a few minutes / an hour / tomorrow / in a few days.”
- “Let me think about that. I’ll get back to you later today / tomorrow / next week.”
- “I’m not sure I’ll have the time. I’ll let you know tomorrow / in a few days.”
Make this your standard response, your default way of responding to requests. Instead of automatically agreeing, you automatically speak such a phrase to buy yourself time, which gives you enough space to properly think things through. While it may feel weird the first few times, it will become second nature quickly – and the number of regrettable yes responses will go down drastically.
But what if buying time doesn’t make sense in a situation? What if the request requires a spontaneous response, as in “hey, let’s grab a coffee. I know a great place a few blocks from here!” In that case, it’s either a yes or no; buying time makes no sense here. Unfortunately, there’s no quick and easy tool for such cases. The way to getting better at dealing with such requests is to slowly become more assertive and build your repertoire of assertive phrases. Your best bet is to use assertiveness scorecards (tip #3) regularly.
2. Be a Broken Record
What if the other person insists on an immediate response? What if you’ve declined a request, but the other person is pressuring you into agreeing anyway? In that case, the Broken Record Technique is your best friend. Here’s how it works:
Acknowledge that you have understood the request and paraphrase the person’s emotional reaction. Then, repeat your initial response – like a broken record. Do not respond to the actual content of the other person’s attempt to change your mind. Do not get into a discussion with him. Do not apologize, whine, explain, or otherwise weaken your position.
Here’s an example of the technique in action. It’s from Harriet Braiker’s book The Disease to Please:
- Friend: “I need to ask you for a big favor. Can you come over this weekend and help me set up for the big charity luncheon? I could really use your help.”
- You: “Can I ask you to please hold the line for a minute?”
- Friend: “Sure.”
- You: “Hi, I’m back. Well, I might have a conflict so I’ll have to check on it. I’ll call you in a few days to let you know.”
- Friend: “Oh, I can’t wait a few days. Can’t you tell me now? I really need to know if I can count on your as always.”
- You: “I understand that you’re anxious for an answer. But, I might have a conflict that I have to check, so I’ll get back to you as soon as I can – probably within the next few days.”
- Friend: “Well, even if you can only come for a few hours, it would still help. I can count on you for that, can’t I?”
- You: “I know how much you want me to help you out. But I might have a conflict that I have to check. I’ll get back to you with an answer in a day or two. I promise.”
When I first learned this technique, I thought it was ludicrous. People will think I’m weird for stupidly repeating what I’ve already said. Nope, nobody ever accused me of being weird. And nobody had a good counter to the technique. When you repeat the phrase often enough, the other person will run out of steam quickly. They will feel dumb for pushing so hard.
The key is to not get into an argument. You do not fight his or her points. You do not offer long explanations. The moment you start justifying your decision, the other person may sniff out your vulnerability and exploit it. Empathize with the other person, paraphrase back the feelings you hear from them, and repeat your initial response.
Here’s another example:
- You: “I wanted to get back to you about your request the other day. I do have a conflict and I won’t be able to do it.”
- Friend: “Really? I was counting on you. You always help me out.”
- You: “I understand you feel disappointed. But I have a conflict and I won’t be able to do it.”
- Friend: “Gee, are you absolutely sure? I just don’t know what I’m going to do without you.”
- You: “I understand you’re a bit concerned, but I do have a conflict and I won’t be able to do it. I’m sure you’ll find someone who can help.”
In many cases, you don’t even need to do the paraphrasing part and can just bluntly repeat your response. Here’s an example
- Co-worker: “Can you do me this favor?”
- You: “Sorry, I already have too much on my plate. Can’t do it.”
- Co-worker: “Come on, you know in how much trouble I am.”
- You: “Like I said, can’t do it.”
- Co-worker: “You sure? I’d do the same for you.”
- You: “Again, as I’ve said, I can’t do it.”
You can also use this technique when giving a counteroffer. When they insist on their initial request, repeat that you won’t be able to do that but would be willing to do XYZ.
As you’re using this technique, keep the following three tips in mind…
1) Don’t offer (invent) explanations. If people ask you “why,” use the broken record technique. Here’s an example:
- Friend: “Why can’t you come?”
- You: “I know you’d love me to come, but I really can’t.”
- Friend: “But why?”
- You: “Look, I know you want me to come. However, I can’t. Thanks for understanding.”
Here’s an example of what could happen if you offer an explanation:
- Friend: “Why can’t you come?”
- You: “I need to get up early tomorrow.”
- Friend: “Oh, that’s no problem. Just come for a drink or two and then leave at 9pm.”
- You: “Uh… well… I could do that. Okay.”
You can always offer an alternative, but do not explain yourself.
2) Don’t apologize or explain yourself. No whining, apologizing, or being overly dramatic. You’re overestimating the impact of your saying “no.” They will cope.
3) Don’t wait for acceptance. You don’t need others to understand, accept, or agree with your refusal. You have the right to say no, whether they agree with your position or not. If you keep explaining yourself, you’ll come across as weak and vulnerable. Move from “You don’t understand why I can’t? Let me explain it better…” to “I see that you don’t agree with me. Nonetheless, that’s my decision.”
3. Reflect and Rehearse
The most effective way to become more assertive in the long-run is to regularly use assertiveness scorecards, which I’ve learned about in The Assertiveness Workbook. Every time you’ve had a challenging interaction, write down what happened, how you responded, and how you could have responded more assertively.
Here’s an example:
What happened: I was working out in the gym with Mike and wanted to go straight home afterward. After the workout, Mike suggested we grab a beer somewhere and talk. I was not prepared for that and said, “Eh, I think I’ll just go home.” He pushed and asked, “Huh? Why? Come on, man. It’ll be fun. Enjoy yourself a little!” I didn’t have a comeback to that and went with him.
Alternative response: “We can go for beer another time. I’m going straight home.” If he pushes, repeat: “Naw, I’m going straight home.” If he pushes further, keep using the broken record technique: “Naw, I’m going straight home.”
You ask yourself: What would have been the best possible / most assertive way to behave in that situation? As you do this simple reflection exercise, something magical will happen. You will gradually become better and better at coming up with assertive responses on the spot. These more effective responses will occur to you right in the moment. You will have become a naturally assertive person.
4. Don’t Justify Yourself to Others
When others try to gain control over you, they will often ask you to justify your behavior. “Why did you do it this way?” If you can’t come up with a strong enough explanation, you’re supposed to then go along with their wishes. This puts you into a position of weakness while it elevates them into one of control and power. You appoint them as your judge and plead your case. But other people are not the judge of your actions, you are. You aren’t obligated to offer any explanations, excuses, or justifications.
Next time you find yourself justifying your behavior, offering excuse after excuse, hold on a minute. Step back and realize that you don’t have to do this. You’re a grownup. You make your own choices. You have your own opinions, values, ethics, ideas about the world. Refuse to let others make you think that their worldviews and opinions are somehow right and yours are wrong.
In some situations, you may want to explain your behavior. Often it’s a good idea because it helps others see things from your perspective. However, it’s not a moral obligation. It’s not about whether you’re smart or capable or reliable. You do not need to keep justifying until their satisfied or convinced. Make your case and be done with it.
(And if your communication style tends to be more on the aggressive side, realize the opposite is also true. Nobody has to justify themselves to you.)
5. Realize You Don’t Have to Make Sense
Another way people will try to gain control over you is by playing the logic card. If you don’t make a logical argument, they think they’re entitled to take over control and dictate from that point on. They think you must either change your mind or win their approval. But you don’t. It’s your life. You’re making your own decisions and value judgments. You can be as illogical as you want.
6. It’s OK to Change Your Opinion
Do you feel like the moment you’ve made a decision, you have to stick with it? The moment you’ve agreed to a request, you have to fulfill it? This is an illusion. Just because you make a decision, doesn’t mean you lose control over your life. The decision to stick with a decision or change it is yours only.
Others may be irritated, disappointed, or maybe even angry when you change your mind. But that shows their lack of maturity. If they try to make you feel bad for changing your decision, that’s their problem and in 99% of cases, they have only themselves to blame. Think about it. They were the ones who trusted their judgment. If they want to blame someone and make someone feel bad, they can do that to themselves. It was their judgment.
To give you an example, I have a friend who often initially says he’s up for something but then changes his mind a few days before the event. I know that. I’ve experienced it many times, and I’ve learned from it. So when he tells me he can’t come, I don’t need to get angry, and I don’t need to make him feel bad. It was my judgment to ask him to come. I didn’t need to ask him. I knew he’s flaky. I could end the friendship. But just because he changes his mind doesn’t mean I’m entitled to make him feel bad.
And look, you don’t want to be known as this kind of person. You want integrity, and you want others to trust you and believe in your word. But always remember, you can change your mind.
7. You Have Your Opinions; Others Have Theirs
You have the right to hold any ideas and beliefs you want, and you don’t need to convince others to hold the same views. If they agree with you, cool. If not, what’s the big deal? What’s at stake? In all likelihood, both of you have no idea what you’re talking about – most of us have no idea how this universe functions. We do the best we can and make stuff up. Others can ridicule your ideas as much as they want.
8. People Can Ask You Anything They Want
You may waste a lot of energy hoping others won’t ask certain questions, trying to stop them from asking, or feeling angry when they do ask those questions. Newsflash: Nobody is forbidden to ask you uncomfortable questions. They can ask you whatever they want to. Life is more comfortable when you accept that fact and simultaneously accept that you don’t need to respond the way they hope you will. You don’t need to answer at all. You don’t need to justify yourself. You don’t need to say yes.
9. You Can’t Please Everyone All the Time
We have this illusion that if we can somehow please everyone, we’ll be happy and respected and approved of. But we can’t please everyone. It’s impossible. The earlier we realize and accept this truth, the better.
No matter what you do, some people will be displeased. If you have a teenage son and work full-time, he’ll say you never have enough time. If you don’t have a job, he’ll say you’re a loser for being unemployed. Just realize you can’t please everyone and move on with life.
10. Asking for Help is not a Burden; it’s a Gift
Many of us are reluctant to ask for help. Our pride gets in the way, or we fear being a burden to others. The truth is, most people love being asked for support. It makes us feel special. Helping you gives us a feeling of kindness and makes us feel like we’re being useful and needed. When you ask for help, you’re offering a gift to the other person. If they accept it, they get not only your gratitude in return, but they’ll also feel better about themselves. Also remember, they can always say “no.” It’s not like you’re forcing them to do it.
11. Some People Ask; Others Guess
An interesting idea that might help you in this regard is the askers versus guessers distinction. "Andrea Donderi theorizes that everyone is raised as either an asker or a guesser,” explains Jocelyn Glei in her book Unsubscribe. “In an ask culture you are taught that asking for whatever you need is fine, with the understanding that the person you’re asking can always decline. In a guess culture, you are taught that you should only ask for something if you think you are very likely to get a yes. In other words, you are trained to be attentive to subtle details and signs that will help you assess the likelihood that someone will be receptive to your proposal.”
“The problem emerges when askers confront guessers. Askers are inclined to just ‘put it out there’ no matter what and leave the decision up to you: Can I crash in your studio apartment for a week? Will you code my website for free? Could you donate money to my new business venture? You get the idea.”
“Askers don’t mind if you say no because they were just testing the waters. But guessers have trouble believing that. They naturally assume that askers share their mindset, so they don’t think someone would ask for something if they didn’t expect to get a yes. Thus, when askers collide with guessers, their requests can often come off as brazen or presumptuous."
This happens all the time. A guesser receives a request from an asker and thinks: How can they expect me to agree to this?... They know I’m busy… How can they assume?...
If you’re a guesser, realize many people don’t expect you to say yes to their requests. They probably didn’t give it much thought and just put it out there, thinking: If they say yes, great. If not, no harm done.
12. Being Nice is Cool; Being a Push-Over is not
“Dictionaries define nice as pleasing or agreeable. In general, nice people tend to be viewed as flat and two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional with depth and definition,” writes Harriet Braiker in The Disease to Please.
“They are rather innocuous, lacking sharp edges or clear definition of their personalities. In groups or organizations, nice individuals simply don’t make waves. And, while they do not offend others, nice people rarely impress others either.”
Don’t get the wrong impression. You want to be friendly, kind, compassionate, warm, and understanding. But you don’t want to be overly friendly, kind, etc.. And you certainly don’t want to be a push-over. Strong yet soft is what gets the highest respect and is what I like to aim for. I want to have clear opinions and clear boundaries, while at the same time, I genuinely care about others.
One Last Thing…
As you’re beginning to behave more assertively, you’ll get resistance from others. They’ll push back. They don’t want you to change. They’ll say you’re acting weird. They’ll act more aggressively to get their way. They’ll try to make you feel bad.
That’s to be expected. That’s normal. It will go away after a while.
In the long run, you’ll get more respect from others. We respect people who have clear agendas, clear goals, clear priorities, and strong personal boundaries. We respect strong people who protect their time.
P.S. Master Your Time Article Series
This is the second article in a mini series on mastering your time. We tackle three common issues people have with their time management. Each issue is tackled in a separate article.
- Wasting too much time - 13 Time-Saving Tips to Free Up Two Hours Every Day
- Saying yes to too many requests - How to Protect Your Schedule: Say “NO” With Strength Instead of Guilt
- Getting distracted too easily - Steve Jobs‘ Focus Routine and 11 More Tips to Eliminate Distractions and Find Your Flow
I loved it. Will try to put these tips into practice.
Cheers, Anne! 🙂
Excellent and practical advice Nils! Thank you.
I bought your inspirational book early last year, my first introduction to Stoicism. The philosophy has changed my life. Thank you.
Thank you for the kind words, Nim. The Stoicism book was actually written by Jonas, not me.
Thank you, very useful!
Glad you find it useful, Maria! 🙂