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Feeling overwhelmed has become an integral part of the student experience. Why is it so tempting to take on more than we can reasonably manage? Saying “no” is crucial for our time management, healthy relationships, and emotional well-being—and it’s a learned skill. Here’s how you can get more comfortable setting boundaries with your friends and peers, professors, bosses, and family.

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1.

Overwhelming group project

“With group projects, I am one of those people who will take on bigger parts of the task when no one steps up, so I usually end up with a heavier workload.”
—Third-year undergraduate, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Call it as you see it: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”

How to handle group dynamics

Saying “no” can be really hard, especially when we are worried about what people will think of us. In a recent survey by Student Health 101, 48 percent of respondents, when thinking about an incident in which they took on too much, said it happened because they didn’t want people to feel badly towards them.

It is normal to worry about what other people think of us if we decline their requests. But because of what psychologists sometimes call the “harshness bias,” we often believe that people may judge us more negatively than they actually do. The reality is that most people won’t think less of you if you say no. Your group likely won’t think that you aren’t a great team player if you don’t take on an unfair share—after all, where is the team in that? In fact, people tend to respect us more when we are able to set healthy limits.

How best to say no in this situation? Take a moment to call up the respect for yourself that you’d like others to feel for you. It takes courage to consider your own needs and priorities along with the needs of the group, but in the long run it always feels better than being dumped on.

Call it as you see it: “I’m so sorry, but I’m not able to do more than my share this week.”

Still having a hard time? It gets easier with practice, says Dr. Li-Jun Ji, Associate Professor at Queen’s University. “Ask your best friend to practice a scenario in which he or she asks you to do something,” suggests Dr. Ji. After acting this out a few times, “gradually try it with other people.” Set a goal for yourself: Dr. Li suggests one ‘no’ a day.

2.

A hard-to-resist invitation

“I had a late assignment that already had 20 percent taken off. I needed to get it done that night. My friends invited me out, and I said yes even though I should have stayed in and finished the assignment.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

Reference your crystal ball: “Right now, I want to go with you to more than you can imagine. But I know that I will regret it if I do. I can see my future if I go to that party, and it isn’t pretty.”

How to not go out

There can be high costs to pay for not saying no. Parties and social events pack a powerful pleasure punch that our brains tend to drive us towards. We human beings are social animals, and we like to feel a part of our tribe. Denying the clan can feel threatening—both to us and to our friends. Saying “yes” can make us feel secure and joyful to be a part of things.

We will often choose what is most satisfying in the present rather than what will be best for our future, especially when the present option is as pleasure-packed as a party, according to a 2006 study in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. In our survey, one in four students, when thinking of a specific incident in which they regretted saying yes, said it was because they didn’t think the decision through.

We can make better decisions by picturing the future as clearly as we can, rather than thinking about what we will miss out on now. Think about the last time you skipped homework for a social event. What happened? Ask yourself: What will I look and feel like tomorrow morning if I don’t stay in and study tonight? Remember: There will be other other opportunities to go out.

3.

A pile-up of club responsibilities

“I was asked to be on a team [presenting] issues facing First Nations peoples. There was a possibility that it would become overwhelming. I said yes, and it quickly became more than I could handle.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, University of Guelph, Ontario

Practice your reason for saying no before you need it: “I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities right now.”

How to control your role

You aren’t alone. Forty-two percent of students in our survey said that in a specific incident in which they regretted saying yes, they had been helping someone out. Another 13 percent had said they would help but then had to bail later. Why do we say yes even when we know we don’t have time?

It’s counterintuitive, but being short on time makes it even harder for us to manage the limited time we do have. The busier we get, the more likely it is that we will have a harder time saying “no” to the next request, according to Harvard Behavioural Scientist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton Economist Eldar Shafir in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Picador, 2013). Here’s the solution:

Practice your reason for saying no before you need it:
“I wish I could, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities right now.”

When we are stressed and tired, we tend to act habitually. Knowing this, we can train our brain to habitually say “no” rather than “yes” to requests by rehearsing a go-to response. When we make a specific plan before we are confronted with a request, we are far more likely to honour our initial intentions, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

4.

An unethical academic favour

“My friend asked me for my homework, but I was worried that she’d plagiarize. I said yes anyway.”
—Second-year undergraduate, Queen’s University, Ontario

Say no clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words: “I’m so sorry and I wish I could help. But academic integrity is important to me.”

How to honour your values

We tend to admire strong individuals who don’t cave in the face of peer pressure. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to reject an unethical request. In a series of studies published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2014), psychologists had participants ask strangers to perform unethical acts, such as vandalizing a library book by writing the word “pickle” in it.

Half of the people asked to do something unethical did it. To say no to a request like this is even more difficult when it comes from a friend. To do so, we need to put our values front and centre, reminding ourselves—and our friends—what matters most.

In this situation, two things are important: your compassion for your friend’s troubles, and your own integrity. Express both of these.

Say no clearly, and repeat yourself using the same words, if necessary: “I’m so sorry that you are struggling right now, and I wish I could help. But I can’t let you see my homework. Academic integrity is really important to me.”

“No” may be difficult for your friend to hear—as difficult as it is for you to say. Stand your ground. Repeat your compassionate decline as many times as you need to. By using the same words with each repetition, you indicate to your friend that you aren’t going to be influenced, no matter how much pressure he or she lays on. It might help if you steer your friend toward tutoring or other supports.

5.

A badly-timed family event

“I [watched] my niece and nephew so my brother could go on holiday. I felt like I’d miss out if I said ‘no’. I [realized] I wouldn’t have time to study or work. I didn’t receive a paycheque that month.”
—Second-year graduate student, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

Fight fire with fire: Tell your close friend or family member that you’ll get back to them shortly. Then find an advocate (Mom?) and let them say no for you.

How to take the pressure out of family

It can be especially hard to say “no” to our nearest and dearest. Nearly 65 percent of our survey respondents reported that they said yes to an invitation when they wanted to say no because the person who asked was a friend or a close acquaintance.

This dilemma is what Professor Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist at Duke University, calls the “curse of familiarity.” “When I receive formal invitations from people I don’t know, it is relatively easy to politely turn down their offer,” he wrote on his PBS blog Need to Know. “But…the better I know someone, the harder it is to say, ‘No, sorry, you know I would really love to come, but I just can’t.'"

Fight fire with fire: Tell your close friend or family member that you’ll get back to them shortly. Then, try to recruit an advocate who is close to the person asking you for a favour—and let them say no for you.

In the above example, the undergraduate could have enlisted her mother to explain to her brother why she couldn’t babysit, and to make a counter-request: “Your sister needs to study and earn money for school. Could she spend time with you and your family over the summer?”

6.

Situation at work

“I will often say yes to a boss who asks me if I can stay late, because I want to help out and be viewed as a hard worker. But it always ends up messing up my sleeping schedule and affects my schooling.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate, Humboldt State University, California

Create a concrete excuse: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

How to set boundaries with your boss

Fifty percent of students in our survey reported that saying “no” to requests that they don’t have time for is “very difficult” or “usually a struggle.”

We sometimes say “yes” in an attempt to avoid the difficulty and discomfort of saying no, according to Columbia psychologists Francis Flynn and Vanessa Lake (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2008). Fortunately, there are ways to make our “no” feel more comfortable.

It’s hardest to decline a request when our reasons for doing so are vague or abstract, especially if we have to do it face-to-face. A way to ease this difficulty can be to make your excuses more concrete. “I won’t get enough sleep,” is a weak explanation. But if you actually block off “sleep” and “study” time on your calendar, you’ll be able to clearly see when you do and don’t have time to work late. That way, you’ll be able to say no with more conviction.

Create a concrete excuse: “I have other plans tonight, but I could help you this weekend if you need it.”

When you have your most important priorities already blocked off on your calendar, you’ll be able to see when you actually do have time to help out. Offering those times to help out can make saying “no” even easier.

7.

Yet another budget buster

“A very close friend of mine asked to borrow money. I needed it, but lent it anyway. This resulted in me being late on my credit card payment. I went without money for two weeks.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Algonquin College, Ontario

Offer an alternative: “I don’t have the extra money right now. Is there another way I can help?”

How to avoid a financial hit

Ah, yes: The future is always greener. It can be hardest to say no to something that won’t affect us until far into the later—when it might be too late.

Research has shown how our choices are influenced by our timeframe. We tend to make better decisions for ourselves when we are making those decisions for the present rather than for the future, according to professors Gal Zauberman and John Lynch (Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 2006). Knowing this, we can make more constructive choices by shortening the timeframe. For example, in this case, you could make a weekly budget for yourself to guide your choices about spending and lending. If you still have extra money in a given week, by all means share the wealth. But if you can’t pay your own bills because you’re sharing with a friend, you’ll need to reprioritize.

It can also help to present an alternative that works better for you. If the only alternative is not helping your close friend, that makes it harder to be stick to your budget or any other external limit that you’ve imposed. Give yourself a more appealing option and another way to help.

8.

A request from a higher-up

“I took on a side project for a teacher even though I will be busy with my own capstone project and other courses. I couldn’t say no because I really like the teacher and the project. I couldn’t refuse a second opportunity for work experience.”
—Third-year undergraduate, Humber College, Ontario

Take time to consider: “Thanks for the opportunity. I’ll look at the timeframe and get back to you.”

How to say no to your professor

We do a lot in life out of fear of regretting not doing it: 40 percent of our survey respondents, recalling a specific incident, acknowledged that they said yes because they were worried that they might regret saying no. And when someone higher up asks for a favour in person, it can be that much harder to say no.

In these cases, we do well to resist the urge to give an immediate response. That way we can make a decision in a less pressured environment, and give the higher-up a response via text or email later. Don’t forget to get back to them.

Take time to consider: “Thanks for the opportunity. I’ll look at the timeframe and get back to you.”

“Before saying ‘yes’, be mindful of the situation,” says Dr. Ji. “Train yourself to say, ‘Let me check my calendar first,’ before making any commitments.

This will give you time to think about a response that you won’t regret.” This can mean pairing a “yes” answer with a request that they return the favour: “I’d love to help you out. Do you think that you could also help me? I’m looking for a job and I’m wondering if you have any leads.”

Christine Carter

Expert: Dr. Christine Carter is a sociologist and senior fellow at the Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley. She is author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work (Ballantine, 2015), and Raising Happiness (Ballantine, 2011).

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