Cover a friend’s shift at work? Single-handedly organize a last-minute fundraiser? Babysit your cousin’s three kids on the night before a major exam? Yes, why not? We’ve all been there. Request after request comes flying in from all areas of our lives and before we know it, we’ve said yes to them all. One look at our planners will tell us that we’ve overbooked ourselves because we just can’t say “no.” Whether we think it’ll make us seem rude or we’ve convinced ourselves that we can handle it, too many of us are filling our plates with way too many obligations. Here’s the deal on how to deal.
First off, decide what really matters in your life. That sounds complicated, but it isn’t if you just take a closer look at everything on your to-do list. Are you involved in four different clubs at once? Which of those have something directly to do with your major or something you’re passionate about? If you find yourself in horseback riding club, scuba club, poetry club and student government but you’re on track to become your state’s next senator, consider weeding out a few of your less necessary commitments.
Kylie Cole, Prevention and Education Coordinator & Staff Psychologist at the University of Maine, has a few tips for those who have trouble saying “no.”
“Saying ‘no’ is really difficult in the moment, so it is great to make a plan about how much you are willing to take on in a given semester (or week) and try to stick to that,” she says.
2. Be truthful
Here is a secret most collegiettes don’t know: you do not have to please everyone. In fact, it’s impossible! Your job is to do your best in school, enjoy your short time as a college student and follow your dreams. The rest are just details. If you are overwhelmed, be honest! One week you could have a midterm exam, two papers to write and two shifts at work, not to mention an argument with a friend or roommate that’s weighing heavy on your heart. This would not be a swell time to add something else to your schedule.
One collegiette explains, “I’ve come to terms with the fact that I can’t please everyone, and that has lifted a lot of weight off my shoulders.”
People reach out to you for favors most often because they know you are responsible and can juggle several commitments at once. However, you’re not doing yourself or anyone else a favor by stretching your time so thin that you end up feeling miserable and overworked. You will put less energy into everything you do, and you can bet that person won’t want to rely on you again.
“People often expect more of themselves than they do of others, so learning to cut ourselves a break and allow ourselves to take time to take care of ourselves is important,” Cole says.
Say your schedule is cramped as is and a member of your debate club asks for last-minute help with their speech. Think twice before agreeing. Sure, you want to help them out and be a good friend, but you have to be realistic about how many commitments and tasks you can handle at one time.
So if your schedule really has you feeling swamped, politely tell the person or organization who’s asking, “No, thank you. I’m sorry I can’t help you out right now but I’m just too busy. Please ask me again at another time.” That way you aren’t burning bridges but at the same time you aren’t adding another impossible to-do to your already never-ending checklist.
Sure, extracurriculars and added events can be fun, but when you’re already working a part-time job and being a full-time student, even an hour or two a week of free time can be more precious than gold. Try making a list of all your time commitments, including work, studying, recreational or social time and any extracurriculars.
Next, make a schedule for everything on your to-do list. Sort them into the above categories and once you see it all on paper, you might realize you have more time than you thought! If the opposite is true, take a look at what can be shifted in your schedule and what could possibly be removed.
Nicole of George Washington University recently got so overwhelmed by her crazy schedule that she forced herself to sit down and look at everything that was taking up her time.
“I just bought a planner, and I took the syllabus from every class I am taking and wrote [down] all of the assignments from now until the end of the semester,” Nicole says. “I feel better. If someone asks me to do something for them, I can check how much time I have every day to do it.”
You know what they say about practice—it makes perfect. So if you are the female Jim Carrey in Yes Man, start saying “no” to small demands in limited areas of your life. For example, if a coworker asks if you can take a four-hour shift for them a week in advance, try saying “no.” It’s only a few hours, and that far ahead of time your coworker can surely find someone else to cover her shift. Soon you’ll see how painless saying “no” can be.
“I have a tendency to say ‘yes’ all the time, but then I end up getting overwhelmed as my responsibilities pile up,“ another collegiette says.
Saying “no” can be surprisingly freeing. If you start small, you’ll eventually have the strength to say “no” to bigger questions, such as, “Can you do the rest of the work for this group project on your own?” I think you already know the answer.
5. Be cautious
Of course, there are some areas of our busy lives where it’s a better idea to just say yes. For example, at your internship, it’s usually best to say “yes” more often than “no.”
When your boss asks you to run around the corner for three extra-hot soy lattes and you’d really rather sit behind your tiny desk and check Facebook again, say “yes.” It may be annoying, but you never know how far a little determination and positivity will take you in the workplace.
“I often ask students who come to see me at the Counseling Center if they are doing something because they want to do it or because they feel obligated or pressured to do it,” Cole says. “Knowing the difference, even if you still decide to do the activity, can help you understand your feelings about it.”
Think before you say “no,” but mean it with all your might when you do. There’s a fine line between being strong and letting someone walk all over you, and collegiettes, we never want you to cross it. With any luck, you’ve had enough time in your packed schedule to finish this article, and you can walk out the door a new woman—one who says “no” when she needs to and “yes” when she wants to.