Here’s How To Stop Saying Yes To Stuff We Don’t Want To Do (Without Being A Jerk)

Tired of not being able to say no to stuff you really don't want to do? Read our list of tips to learn ways to decline politely and painlessly.

October 24, 2017
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In the 21st century, free time is at a premium. We’re a multi-tasking sensory-overload society, consumed by smartphones, email, social media, and an ever-increasing number of tasks. But there are only so many hours in the day, and sometimes we have to learn to say no. It’s for our own self-preservation.

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No matter if it’s for work, friends, or family, there will be times when someone asks you for a favor, and just as many times when you don’t feel like pitching in. This isn’t (always) being selfish. Sometimes you have other obligations you can’t shunt aside; at others you’re indulging in some much needed time off. And sometimes you flat out don’t feel like it. And that’s okay too.

… the main reason we commit to things we don’t want to do is that we want to be liked.

So why is it so hard to just tell someone no? And why do we sometimes say yes to stuff, only to flake out later? Both are true psychological dilemmas that add stress to our lives and those around us. And it feels like flakiness is at an all-time high.

So let’s look at why we feel compelled to say yes to things we don’t want to do (and why we’ll probably do a no-show anyway), followed by some guidelines to help you learn how to bow out gracefully.

Why do we say yes to things we don’t even want to do?

According to clinical psychologist Don Corley, the primary reason we say yes when we don’t want to is a need for approval: “We’re afraid of what they’ll think about us if we say no. It’s all about the fear of rejection.”

This is counterproductive and self-destructive he notes, adding that by doing so “we end up losing our sense of self, and becoming a mirror image of who we’re around to get their approval. So the main reason we commit to things we don’t want to do is that we want to be liked.”

Life coach Donna Taylor agrees, adding that maintaining relationships is another factor for overcommitting. “Another reason they say yes is if they feel obligated if the person has done something for them in the past,” she says.

So, why do we flake?

Now that we understand why we say yes when we don’t feel like it, the reason we often don’t follow through comes into play. And it says as much about us as it does about the person we’re flaking out on.

Corley says the main culprit is discomfort: “It’s much easier to say yes and not show up then to say no up front. Saying yes gets you out of that moment of feeling pressured. But the act of not showing up is your true expression of self. It’s an act of passive aggression.”

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As far as why this has become such a recurrent issue, Corley says the rise of social media can’t be underestimated: “People post and text things they would never say face to face, and that also extends to overcommitting. It’s easier to be passive aggressive from a distance.”

Taylor adds that flakiness essentially equates to selfishness: “They are looking out more for themselves than the other person. Some will say yes to an invitation, but if a better one comes along they simply disregard the first invitation.”

The Cost of Being a Flake

Let’s face it: flakiness is in the eye of the beholder. If you’re the one who pulls a no-show, you may think you won’t be missed, or that the person you said yes to will understand. But if you’re deemed a persistent flake, you’re the one who will be missing out on stuff you really want to do.

In a piece for Psychology Today, Brent Roberts, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, noted that persistent flakes lack conscientiousness, and it costs them.

Non-flaky folks, on the other hand, value others’ time as much as they do their own; interestingly, they’re likely to make more money, have better social lives, make smarter lifestyle decisions, and even live longer.

The good news? Roberts notes flakiness lessens with age: “The way our society is structured is a path toward responsibility. Bad things happen to you if you don’t increase your conscientiousness level.”

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Taylor (who had previous experience as a school counselor) agrees, noting that she saw more exhibits of flakiness while working with students than with adults, but that overcoming the tendency to not commit at any age was “ultimately a choice.”

If you’re a pathological flake, a mental health check won’t hurt either. Those suffering from attention deficit disorder, depression, or other psychological issues are more prone to be no-shows. Getting proper care can be a true lifesaver, helping to keep your relationships and health intact.

Now that we have some inside knowledge as to why we get stuck in the “saying yes when you mean no” trap, let’s discuss ways to get out of them.

“Don’t” vs. “Can’t”

If you’re looking for a way to decline tactfully, your choice of words are key. A 2012 joint research study between Boston College and University of Houston revealed that using the word “don’t” instead of “can’t” is essential to effectively decline a request.

Motivational speaker Mel Robbins discussed the study in a video for Success Magazine: “It turns out it’s not just important for you and me to learn how to say no, it’s actually essential for us to learn to know how to say it.”

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The study found that volunteers who said “I don’t skip exercise” worked out more often than those who said “I can’t skip exercise.” “Can’t” denotes putting a restriction on oneself, but allows for negotiation, whereas “don’t” is decisive, final, and helps to end debate.

Don’t Lie or Over-Explain to Get Out of Something

No need to make crazy excuses, because it’s all the more likely you’ll get found out. Just be frank about the reasons you can’t commit. Likewise, there’s no reason to go into great detail on the true reason you can’t say yes—just the facts please.

A direct response is always the best and will get you far more respect than an obvious lie to get out of whatever you don’t want to do.

Taylor says rather than justifying why you can’t do something, emphasizing graciousness when declining a request is what’s most important. She suggests, “Always say ‘thanks for asking me’ before saying no. It makes the invitation to something seem appreciated even though you can’t (or don’t want to) do it.”

Corley agrees: “You can be be assertive and respectful—be gracious in your no by adding ‘thanks for asking.’”

Just Say No

To expand on the last point: sometimes the bluntest reply is the best, as a direct “no” will nip things in the bud better than any fancy excuse.

But to be able to say no succinctly requires confidence and permission from yourself to do so; says Taylor, “Accepting first that it is okay to say no, I think, is a good place to start.”

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Another step in how to say no with self-assurance is ensuring that you’ve given enough time and consideration to the request in question before deciding yay or nay. Corley explains, “You can make a more informed decision going in by buying yourself some time to say yes or no, by telling the person asking to ‘Let me give it some thought and see if I have any conflicts.’ This gives you time to sleep on it and decide if it’s something you want to do and have the time to do.”

And if the person asking doesn’t respect that you need a bit of time before coming to a decision, they’ve helped make up your mind for you! “If they want an immediate answer that’s a red flag, and that would get an automatic no for me, because that’s a sign of disrespect,” Corley says.

Don’t Drag It Out

As stated above, giving a day to think over the favor being asked of you is good advice. Beyond that, though, it’s counterproductive; the longer you think about it, the more likely you are to cave in and do it. The reason? It’s simply fatiguing and pressuring to ruminate over something so much, and by the time you’re ready to say no, it’s too late! You’ve given yourself no room to extricate yourself gracefully.

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Not to mention it’s more courteous to bow out quickly then belabor delivering the news. If you say no at the last minute, you’re leaving the person who asked you in a real bind. The sooner you say no, the more time the other party has time to contact someone else. It’s a win-win for all involved and will erase any hint of hard feelings.

Weigh the Pros and Cons

Sometimes being asked to do a favor can also be a good opportunity for yourself as well. If you’re particularly tortured on whether or not to turn down a request, write out a list of plusses and minuses. This may sound silly for relatively small tasks, but for anything that requires time and work, it really helps figure out your priorities.

Do a total mind dump and write out every pro and con you can think of.

If the minuses win, your gut reaction to say no was justified. Don’t second-guess yourself. If the plusses win, perhaps it might be worth your while. It’s the ultimate litmus test for saying no without any guilt or extra fuss.

We hope these tips are helpful in giving you options for a stress-free way to stop saying yes to things you don’t want to do, so you can have more fun doing the things you do! Remember that opting out of being a flake by being assertive will keep you in good standing with those important people in your life, all while helping to build your self-esteem in the process.

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