“Sorry, I don’t have time for this.” should be enough, but still you hesitate. If you are one of these delightfully considerate people who struggle with saying “no” to commitments they really don’t have time for, don’t rush in blaming it on your weak character. If you have a strong perfectionist trait, then this usually comes along with the package.

Perfectionists are generally more self-critical than other people. Combined with their unrealistically high standards and an inflated fear of failure, this makes dismissal of new incoming commitments a greater challenge than it is to most people.

This has been my struggle for many years before I finally managed to develop three very powerful habits that helped me overcome this bias. Thanks to these habits I now feel a lot more confident in rejecting requests that would otherwise have led to overload or have jeopardised more important commitments.

Habit 1: Calculate your capacity and workload

One of the reasons why we hesitate is that we often aren’t sure how much time we can realistically spare by stirring around in our calendar and to-do list. Making a habit of estimating the size (in hours) of all your commitments is not just useful for your own planning. It also gives you confidence in knowing when your capacity is full, and what it would take to make room for more commitments. Here’s what it might look like:

  1. Start every week by looking at your calendar and adding up all your scheduled slots (meetings, events, webinars etc.). Subtract that sum from your total available time that week. (If it’s work you’re planning, then your total available time should equal the size of your regular work week. Don’t plan for overtime work unless it’s an emergency. Overtime work tends to always come knocking anyway as things always tend to swell up more than you’d like. Making it part of the plan is a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.) The difference is your output capacity this week.
  2. Now list your top priority commitments/tasks this week. (If you’re struggling with prioritisation, here’s a free prioritisation guide designed specifically for perfectionists.)
  3. Roughly estimate the time it should take to complete each task.
  4. Add up the most important and urgent tasks until the sum of their estimated time equals your output capacity.

Now you know your output capacity this week and what you can realistically accomplish within its limits. This is your baseline. If anyone should ask you to take on an additional task this week, you can now be fully confident that you don’t have any spare capacity for it. There’s no more room four uncertainty. Any additional commitment can only be taken on at the expense of one of your current top priority tasks, and you know it. Because you’ve actually made the calculation. So when you say “Sorry, I have no time for this.” – you know for a fact that it’s true.

Habit 2: Be clear about the trade-offs

Now that you are clear about your capacity and your workload, you know that for every new thing you say “yes” to, you will have to say “no” to something else. For every new commitment you take on this week, you will have to trade away one of your current top priority tasks. Make a habit of looking at it this way, and make sure your boss knows and buys into it. So that every time your boss asks you to do something unplanned, you can reply with something along the lines of:

“Sure, boss, I estimate this should take about 10 hours to complete. As my (or my team’s) week is completely packed already, what would you rather have me drop instead: task A, task B or task C? They all take roughtly 10 hours each.”

This way of posing the matter is a strong reminder that everything always comes at a cost, and implicitly signals that whatever you are asked to do will come at the expense of reduced output elsewhere, and not at the expense of your individual time and health.

Habit 3: Transfer the burden of guilt to the asker

Isn’t it ironic that when someone asks you to do something you have no spare time for, somehow it is you who’s feeling guilty about having to say “no”. Well, that’s just wrong. But you can make it right by turning the tables. Make them understand that what they’re asking you for requires a personal sacrifice of real value. Here’s one way of phrasing it:

“Listen, my week is so packed that if I should do this, I would have to do it during the weekend, and that would create some tension back home, where I’m already on the minus side.”

Whoever tries to persuade you to make this sacrifice will now have to carry a heavy burden of guilt. Refusing, on the other hand, would just mean preserving the status quo. If you agree to do what they ask, they’ll owe you a favour.

This shouldn’t be necessary, but…

Once again, you shouldn’t have to overthink things and create schemes only to be able to say “no” to things you don’t have time for or which do not contribute to your goals. But sometimes that tiny bit of uncertainty we feel can create just enough discomfort in refusing people to pull us into reluctant submission we later regret. 

Installing these three habits in the way I handle external commitments has helped me tremendously in reducing that uncertainty. It has saved me tons of time and plenty of trouble, and I hope they will do the same for you.