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To progress on your project, to friends and organizations say no…thanks

Do you feel you can’t refuse the requests or plans of friends or volunteer groups? Do you secretly resent or rage at them? That they’re eroding or wasting your time, the time you want to or need to use for other activities, like your current article, book chapter, or dissertation?
We all have such feelings. To assert ourselves for ourselves takes commitment and practice, especially without making enemies of cherished friends we’ve had for a long time or turning away groups and activities we believe in.
Saying No to people and activities that don’t feel right is our right. As we practice saying No, we gain a sense of deserving, empowerment, and freedom. We make better choices when we say Yes, and we enjoy those friends and activities without feeling pressured when we do say Yes.
From my own life and coaching and advising graduate students writing their dissertations (for which they must say No a lot), here I share several ways to help you say No. Then you can say Yes to yourself for activities you love and value and that feed you and advance your career.

Friends: Just Say “Not Now, Thanks”

When you’ve made a habit of “regular” contacts with friends, such as weekly or monthly nights or days out, lengthy daily phone calls, and “quick” lunches that never are, the habit can be very hard to break. So, summon your courage and explain to your friend.
Explain you are making some changes to honor yourself and re-embark on your long-neglected project. If you can relate your need for seclusion and concentration to similar needs in your friend’s life, like studying for a real estate license or training for a triathlon, the parallel could help.
As you decline, you can take responsibility by saying lightly, “This is the sacrifice for my wanting to develop my article.”
If your friend presses, reply firmly, “Thank you, but no.” Rehearse in the mirror if you have to. Reassure your friend that it’s you and not her or him.
To soften what your friend may take as rejection of calls or dates, offer a bribe that’s an alternate: “How about having our call on Friday?” Or “Let’s meet for lunch two weeks from Tuesday.” Or suggest coffee or drinks at the end of the day, after you’ve put in some gratifying time on your project.
You can take a similar stand with rapid-fire emails or texts. I had a friend who relentlessly responded to my initial infrequent catch-up emails within two hours. I felt pressured to respond quickly and always received an almost immediate long, detailed reply. Finally, I realized I was spending too much time and attention and wrote her (kindly) that my emails would be spaced out. I assured her, though, that the time between emails in no way indicated my lessening of affection. She got the idea, and we now correspond about once a month.

Organizations and Groups: Just Say “Later, Thanks”

The strategies are similar with organizations or groups that have come to depend on your contributions. Giving your time to worthy endeavors is admirable, and you may enjoy the involvement. If you’ve been very active, your organizations and (other) officers may call on you for everything. You know better than I that, rabbit-like, one committee obligation breeds the next.
One of my dissertation coaching clients had a case of excessive involvement. Trevor was extremely active in his community. After work on Mondays, he volunteered for the neighborhood watch, on Tuesdays coached Little League, on Wednesdays ushered at his midweek church service and attended two committee meetings afterwards, on Thursdays met with the town voter registration officials, on Fridays tutored at-risk kids at the Y, and on Saturdays served dinner at the local shelter.
Trevor complained to me (not surprisingly) that he wasn’t making any progress on his doctoral work. I counseled him to start practicing saying No and to choose only two of his weekly activities. “Promise yourself,” I added, “you can resume the rest after your degree is awarded.” We then generated specific scripts so he could withdraw gracefully from many of the activities for the foreseeable future.
For you, some variations on scripts that helped Trevor:
  • I really love doing this (volunteering, coaching, dishing out stew), but I’ve got to concentrate now on my project.
  • I’m SO sorry, but I can’t do this (volunteering, etc.) until I wrestle my project to the ground.
  • Maybe you remember how it was with your own big long, monstrous project. That’s how mine is now. I’ve got to give it my all, and I’ll be in touch when it’s under control.
  • Regretfully, I must withdraw from this (volunteering, etc.) for the next eight months (or the time you feel you need, and add six months) because of my project. I look forward to helping coordinate the Christmas pageant (or another appropriate event in the future).
  • As I resign for now, I know you’ll find a qualified replacement. I’m glad to give him or her some pointers to ease the transition.
  • Thank you for understanding. I look forward to resuming with you and the group.
See the pattern? Make your definitive statement, give your reason quickly without describing every wrenching detail, refer to a time frame that’s comfortable for you, and make a promise for the future.
I urge you to announce your withdrawal and alternate plans either in person or on the telephone, even though either of these options takes more courage than email or text. You may have to field a few questions or objections, but have the confidence that you can.

When They Really Feel Rejected

When others feel rejected and hurt by your No, they may become cruel in their disparagement, sarcasm, and sniping. Your job now is not to let anything they throw bother you. A tall order, granted, but the trick is perspective. Tell yourself: They needed to do that.
This statement may go against all your logic and the rage rising in your stomach. Realize, though, that the stabs of others are very likely not aimed at you personally but stem from something completely unrelated and probably very deep. I don’t mean to psychoanalyze anyone, but the causes could be their lack of childhood love and support, wrath at an absent parent, frustration at a stalled career, jealousy of everyone perceived as more accomplished (like you), or feelings of unworthiness and toolateness.
In other words, They needed to do that. 
You can respond to their barbs in one or more of several ways:
  1. Answer with grace and consideration. “Marsha, you’ve accomplished a lot too—look at your influential contributions to the town council.” “Doug. I’ll be the same person after my project is finished. We can still watch the hockey playoffs together.”
  2. Reply with boundary-settling. “Tim, I don’t appreciate those deprecating remarks. If you can’t give me support, let’s not talk until my project is finished.”
  3. Respond with silent affirmations.
    • I see you now, Bernard, in perfect happiness and satisfaction with your life.
    • I affirm for you, Lois, all good you wish for yourself.
    • You too have unlimited potential, Lauren, and I support you in it.
    • Noah, you have all the energy, enthusiasm, and desire to resume your own project.

No Can Be Yes

The more you honor yourself and practice taking your stand for No and what is right for you, the easier it will become. You’ll feel better and your life will go more smoothly. You’ll make the progress you want to on your important project and will feel better about yourself and all your relationships. And, almost magically, the more you say No and know you deserve to, the more people and circumstances you will attract who help you say Yes to what you love and deserve.
© 2019 Noelle Sterne
Adapted from Noelle Sterne, Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015).

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 400 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Textbook & Academic Authors Association. Read more about TAA guest posts here.