Why some people are stressed is mainly because they take on more responsibilities than they can cope with. This could be a character flaw that could lead to breakdowns or even burnouts. Finding things to eliminate from your overtaxed schedule and declining from taking up some more, will provide more time for you and more energy to deal with other commitments. For some people, the desire to please others makes them accede to requests they ought to have turned down. A study conducted in the US found that people who committed themselves to additional responsibilities which bogged them down had a notion that they will have more time in the future to carry out the task. Other reasons why people may find it difficult to know what they ought to be committed to and what not to be committed to, is when they do not understand the purpose for their lives and are not strong on values.

When you look at the commitments in your life from the viewpoints of purpose and values, it becomes easier to put things in perspective. In coming to a good conclusion about what task to take on and those to refuse a discard, the following questions and suggestions may be helpful:

  1. Is this a true obligation for you? Do you really have to do this at this time? Could someone else not have done it and probably done it better?
  2. Do you want to do this? Are you really doing what you want to do, or you took up the responsibility to make someone else happy at your own expense and probably that of your family? Did you say YES because you felt guilty saying NO? If so, then imagine how guilty you will feel if you cannot be through on your commitment because of other obligations. Learn to make your decisions based on whether it is a commitment you want to make, not on the level of guilt associated with saying no.
  3. Is what you were doing something that brings you joy or it brings joy to someone else dear to you? Some of us take on responsibilities for reasons that are not too good, e.g. you don’t want to be seen as lazy (truth is that may not be enough to convince cynics). You don’t want to let others down (you could be doing it at the expense of your health). Nobody else can do it (don’t fool yourself!). You have difficulty saying NO! (But you will not have difficulty grumbling thereafter to whoever cares to listen that you never wanted to do it!)
  4. Decide on whether you have the time to do it. Your willingness, your desire notwithstanding, if you do not have the time to do it properly and with the attention it requires, you will not be doing yourself or any other person any favour by saying YES. You can break down your new commitment to a daily or weekly basis and see how well it can fit into your schedule.
  5. Sometimes when it is a large commitment that is required, you may need to talk to your spouse or a friend familiar with your schedule. A second party may help you to be more objective.
  6. Does this fit into your goals and priorities?
  7. Fine, you really want to honour this commitment, but you don’t have as much time as you desire. Could you find someone else to partner with you to do it, such that the stress will not be too much on one person?
  8. You may ask to give your response the next day, especially if it is a big commitment. This allows you time to think through on it.
  9. Consider the saying, “if in doubt, don’t”; at least to the time you think you may be able to afford the time.
  10. You may need to tell the person your reasons for saying NO. Never forget to show your appreciation for being considered in the first place.

Communication is an act. How do you turn down a request? There are ways of doing it without halting the relationship. Some people find saying NO to requests difficult because they tend to confuse the rejection of the request with the rejection of the person. Saying NO does not imply that you do not like the person. It only means you are refusing the current request. It is better to be decisive than to seek ways to avoid the person, so you will not have to make a commitment. This could be counter-productive. People feel happier with an honest NO than to be faced with indecision and delayed refusal. This attitude is perceived to be offensive more than the actual refusal. We will look at different ways of saying no that will still allow you to maintain a cordial relationship with friends. Please note that the idea is not to make you an expert at evading responsibilities (remember that what you sow is what you reap), but to help you to learn to say NO when you should say it and say it convincingly.

  1. Straight No. This is simply a NO without any explanation. For example, “Would you like to go out with us this evening?” “No, thank you.” The way you say no is important as it may determine whether you will be pressed further to yield to the request or not. If you give a non-assertive NO, you could be pressed further. How do you make your refusal assertive? Look the person in the eyes as you say NO. It is helpful if the first word of the statement starts with a NO. This is more effective. You may also need to accompany this by shaking your head. You may need to practice this from time to time as you make transactions or carry out other conversations.
  2. Meditative No. In this, you first acknowledge the feeling and content of the request before the refusal is made. For example, “I would have loved to be at your wedding, but I would be out of town over that weekend.”
  3. Reasoned No. Many times, we think that we have to cook up stories to get off having to do certain things. The truth is that you can still be your honest self and be correct. People will respect you for it if you come out clean with them and not have to concoct stories. We will go through some valid honest responses that can be made:

“I am in the middle of several projects.” – It is all right to let people know that you already have some ongoing projects.

“I am not comfortable with that!” – You might be uncomfortable with the manner of people you may have to work with, the moral implications and the type of work.

“I have another pressing commitment.” – It doesn’t matter what the commitment is. It may be that you have made a commitment to stay indoors with your family. You are not obliged to divulge what the commitment is.

“I am not qualified for it.” – It is better to accept your limitations upfront.

“I wouldn’t like to do a poor job.” – If you are hooked up with other commitments, taking on more than you can chew may lead you to have to do a poor job. That can be embarrassing especially when you are held in high esteem.

“I have no experience with that.” – Volunteering does not mean learning new skills or making a fool of yourself.

“I need to focus on my career right now.”

“I need to leave some free time for myself.” – You should treat your personal time like any other appointment. Learn to block of time in your calendar and guarded with all your life. In the long run, it will prolong your life.

“I know you will do a good job yourself.” – Some people doubt their abilities and with some encouragement will end up doing a good job.

“I would rather help out with another task.” – You say this when you really mean it.

“Let me hook you up with someone else who can do it.” – Only ensure the person will be able to represent you well.


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