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Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

The Art of Saying No

Some Simple Remedies for Overcommitment

• Do you take on extra work even though you don't have time for it?
• Do you feel guilty when a colleague or a friend asks for a favor and you can't help?
• Do you worry that you'll be judged negatively if you don't take on extra work?
• Do you worry that friends or colleagues will get mad at you if you tell them no?
• Do you feel a sense of pride when you're able to take on more commitments than anyone else even though you know you don't have the time to complete everything?

If you answered yes to most or all of these questions, you probably have trouble setting appropriate limits with people in your life, and as a result, commit to more than you can reasonably handle. In short, you have trouble saying no. It's a common problem for high achievers.

High-achievers overcommit for many different reasons. For some, it's early socialization experiences. For others, it's pride as they carry their spilling-out-of-the-sides planner like a badge of honor. Sometimes, it's a need for speed, or the need to achieve, or a fear that they'll be seen as inadequate or incapable of "keeping up" that impels high-achievers to take on more than they should. But whatever the reason(s), these little extras that high-achievers tend to do add many hours and a lot of extra stress to what are usually already overscheduled lives.

The key, of course, is to just say no, but as simple as that may seem, saying no is actually quite hard for most high-achievers. Not only are their expectations of themselves extraordinarily high, they also typically enjoy having many pots on the fire. In addition, their efficiency and their ability to get things done faster and better than anyone else is often a double edged sword. The more they do, the more others expect them to do and the more they are sought out to do it, which presents quite a challenge for those who are prone to opt in instead of out.

If you find yourself in this situation, here are a few suggestions that may help you say that simple, yet hard to say word, no.

Resist Jumping In and Fixing It: High-achievers have a tendency to jump in and fix a problem as soon as it hits their radar screen, even when it's not their problem. Resist the urge! Let others take care of it. They may not do it as quickly or as good as you might, but I assure you, if you weren't there, it would somehow get done. And it will if you resist.

Practice Saying No: Sometimes, high-achievers commit to something because they're caught off guard when the favor is asked and they don't have what they think is a "good reason" to say no. The truth is you don't need a good reason to say no. But if you feel that way, then it helps to be prepared, and the only way to be prepared is to practice.

Think of situations that have come up in the past, and then experiment with polite ways to say no. Actually say it out loud so that when the time arises you're comfortable with the words. For example, practice saying, "That sounds like a really good cause, but I don't have the time to devote to it." Or "It's so nice of you to think of me, but I can't add anything else to my plate right now." Or maybe, "I'm sorry. I don't have any more room in my schedule to commit to something new." If it makes you feel better and you can do it right at that moment, you might even recommend someone else to do the job. For example, you might say, "I don't have time to take on another client, but my associate is accepting new cases."

Negotiate: If you feel strongly about a project or cause, but don't have the time right then to devote to it, you can try negotiating a time that will work better for your schedule. For instance, when I was writing High Achieving Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, a client called to see if I was available to consult on a new case. The case sounded very interesting and I had worked with the client before and liked her, but I knew I wouldn't have the time to devote to the case until after my submission deadline. So I negotiated for more time by saying, "I don't have any time in my schedule right now to take on any new cases, but if you can wait until April, I could take the case then." Not everyone will have that flexibility, but if they do, it could be a win-win for everyone involved.

One important note, though; if you do this, make sure when you're negotiating that you don't cut the deadline too close. If anything, negotiate for more time than you'll need, and then if you're available earlier, the client (or whoever) will be happy and you'll feel less stressed. Most importantly, however, be prepared to walk away with a "no, thank you" if the time can't be worked out.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

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