The Art of Saying “No” – How to safeguard your most precious resource, TIME!

It’s hard to believe the girls have been in school for two months already! The crazy chaos of “Back-to-School” is now a thing of the past and my life is mine again… well at least my days, when I can focus on my business and taking care of my personal needs.

And one of the things I am particularly proud of this year, is having resisted the temptation to over commit…

Yes indeed Back-to-School also means a sudden downpour of well meaning friends and colleagues begging you to join their cause and give them oodles of your time. Whether you’re being asked to head your PTA or fundraising committee, join the board of one of the organizations you support, be in charge of uniforms for little league… the opportunities abound… And, correct me if I am wrong, but you feel honored to be asked and are very tempted to say “Yes! Sign me up!”

9476668_sImage credit: mangostock / 123RF Stock Photo


It’s true, we moms love to help and give our time to worthy causes, in and out of school. We just can’t help it! It’s literally wired into our DNA!

We are after all the nurturer, caregiver, teacher, mentor, …

But this kind and generous spirit of ours can often lead us into trouble… as we overextend ourselves and over commit.

Now don’t get me wrong I am a strong advocate of volunteering. I grew up with a mom who was involved in several organizations, and I believe we should all give some of our time to support causes that we believe in. It’s also a fantastic way to teach our kids the importance of giving back. But as moms we already juggle so much that it is imperative we are completely clear about what we are committing to before we actually commit.

So before you sign your life away make sure you are clear about the following:

  • What exactly is expected of me?
  • How much time will I need to give per week / month / year?
  • Will I incur any hard cost doing this? How much?
  • Will I be required to travel / spend considerable time away from my family?

Yes, as you may have guessed, I learned the importance of these 4 little questions, the hard way…

When I first became a “School Mommy” – about 12 years ago when my oldest daughter started pre-Kindergarden, I immediately got involved with our fundraising committee. It was fun and a great way to connect with other awesome moms in our school community. And I loved knowing that I was part of something bigger that would benefit my girls in many ways. But I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I first committed to help. And I did not intentionally sign up for the “all nighters” I pulled with our event chair just days before our gala to manage a TON of last minute donations, finalize the catalog, create placement charts for all our guests, and on and on…

We had barely wrapped our event before our head of school asked if I would chair the following year’s gala. I was honored and after some hesitation said “yes!”. But I did accept with one condition – that I would get professional training since I had never chaired an event like this before. It was one thing to help, but a completely different one to be in charge of the entire project. And having had a taste of doing it the “gorilla way” I knew I needed structure.

I found a class and took one of my committee members along. It was such a powerful training that I asked my school to host another such training so that my entire team could attend. And we had an amazing year! I did not know at the time that various members of our administration had bets about how much money we would raise… the consensus had been that we were lucky if we reached $50,000. Imagine everyone’s surprise when our auctioneer announced that night that we has raised $97,000!

Needless to say I was asked to stay on board and chair the next year’s gala… I did… and stayed on board in some capacity or another for the next four years! Insane I know! What can I say I’m a glutton for punishment. The truth of the matter it that is was an extremely rewarding experience. I learned so much about myself and my abilities as a team manager. I learned about successful business planning and the fascinating world of fundraising. And I made amazing friends. But I also gave a massive amount of my time, and by the end of those first 5 years I was wiped out! Running a fundraiser is a full time job, no matter what anyone tells you… and I already had a full time job, two lovely daughters, a husband and a house to care for. Plus my husband and I served as volunteer ski patrollers every winter for a local ski resort. And try as I may, I could not do all of this and keep my sanity and my health.

When my third daughter was born I officially “retired” from all leadership roles with our school fundraising… only to become our Parents’ Association president. I mistakenly believed that this would require a much smaller time commitment and loved that I could stay involved without signing my life away. Boy was I in for a rude awakening! In addition to running monthly meetings I had committees to form and oversee, meetings to attend with parents, staff members, our head of school… and a ton of paperwork! Once again it was an amazing experience but after two years I had to step down.

My first seven years of “full time” volunteering were rewarding on so many levels and I have absolutely no regrets for having been involved in such a meaningful way. Quite the contrary. I feel proud, fulfilled, enriched. And the best reward was of course, the pride I saw reflected in my daughters’ eyes. In fact when I finally stepped down my oldest daughter was sad because she loved running into me on campus and knowing that I was a part of the magic at her school.

But I cannot say that I did not pay the price for this commitment in other areas of my life.

There is a season for everything, and for the next few years, while my girls are still at home, my volunteering will have a different focus. I stay involved at school as a class parent for my older two daughters, and I will happily lend a hand for a specific event and task. But I stay away from the bigger commitments. And I like to find opportunities we can do as a family. This year we’ll be feeding the homeless once a month and the girls are helping me make blankets for a local hospital.

And before I commit to any new request I ask myself the following questions:

  • Is it absolutely necessary?
  • Will I get great joy out of this?
  • Will this be moving me closer to my goals in life or work?
  • What is the price my family and I myself will pay for my involvement?

When I first made the decision to step down I was a bit sad and felt as though I was letting everyone down. And there were plenty of parents happy to make me feel guilty about my decision. But at the end of the day, my time is mine to manage and I am the only one who really knows how much of it I can give away. And though I love to serve and keep my peers happy, I can’t worry about letting them down if I choose to decline an opportunity.

Others may make you feel bad about your decision not to take on a specific volunteer commitment but remember

  • this is YOUR time not anyone else’s and YOU choose how to best use it.
  • real friends will understand and respect your decision – In fact they will probably admire you for having the courage to say “no”.
  • there will always be someone else, with more free time, that will be happy to step into a position.
  • if you don’t step down you are taking away the opportunity for someone else to shine

Now that my girls are older we have so little “family time” and it is time I treasure. This gives be the confidence to say simply “I’m honored you have asked but I am going to respectfully decline. ”  If I want to leave a door open I may add “Perhaps another time” but for the most part I leave it at a simple “no thank you”.

I have no doubt that once my two oldest are off to college and I transition to a new season in my life, I will find plenty of worthy causes to give oodles of my time to. But for now my priority is to be fully available to my family.  Being clear on this allows me to stand firm despite the gentle and not-so-gentle nudges I may get when I say “No”.

What about you, do you spend a lot of time as a volunteer? Have you found it hard to say no? What is your secret strategy to politely decline a request for your time?

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  1. I totally hear ya about the overcommitting. I’m burnt from all the years of volunteering. I rarely do it unless it is something I am truly passionate about. Answering your question: will I get joy out of this? Frequently the answer is no these days. I find that I do not like volunteering at schools – there is an odd sense of competition. Love the tips, great article.

  2. I am learning as I get order to art of saying no. It also applies to your family. Really ask yourself do you want to do whatever you are being asked or does it infringe on your time, etc. Saying no doesn’t make you a bad person or selfish. Many times people volunteer only to regret it and then resent it. The tips should be in everything you do in life, be able to say no.

    • I do think Arlene that we learn to be a little more selfish with our time as we get older. And you are absolutely right it applies to all aspects of our life, work, home, family… the more we detach ourselves from what others think and focus on our personal needs, the easier it becomes to say “no”.

  3. I just had to resign as the recording secretary of my high school alumnae association. When they asked me to “run” for the position (I’m pretty sure I was the only candidate), I tried to explain that I expected to be doing a lot of traveling as a “trailing spouse”/travel blogger. They said, “Oh, don’t worry, someone will sit in for you at the monthly meetings when necessary”. This didn’t work out. When we finally found out that my husband will be doing a sabbatical in Hawaii starting in January, I was finally able to extricate myself — with all the attendant guilt! Sometimes, you just have to say “no” or be firm about what you can do. My mother-in-law taught me that when someone asks me to bake cookies for something, I can say I’ll “provide” cookies 😉

    • Isn’t amazing that we feel we have to justify saying “no” Suzanne? And how typical that your reason wasn’t quite good enough for your committee. So glad you were able to step down and I do hope you enjoy your time in Hawaii, guilt free!

  4. Saying no is essential in life. We cannot commit to do everything other people ask us to do. It’s essential that we get our priorities right and say no when we feel something isn’t right for us, for whatever reason.

  5. Overcommitting yourself is SO easy to do. Many of us really want to help others and our want to do good can often lead us to trouble. If you over extend yourself you will find you are not up to par on any one task. 🙂

  6. Oh man I think you are talking about me in this post. I often over extend myself and then everything suffers. I have gotten better but sometimes I find myself running in ten different directions at once.

  7. Wow, talk about hitting straight home with this post. We are such a mess prioritization lately. Burning out has become all too common. Great advice. We will definitely implement your suggested questions when considering which tasks should take priority in our busy lives. Thanks!

    • I’m so glad this post will help you Cris and Angela… I think as human we just love to make people around feel good so it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and say “yes”! With a little practice I suspect you’ll quickly become a real pro at prioritizing and making careful choices as to where to give your time. Best of luck!

  8. Great tips. Providing a reason is often the trap we fall into when saying no. We feel obliged to give some rational for declining and then it ends up sounding like an excuse or people try to tell you how your reason can be circumvented. I like the way you phrased your no. You are respectful of the ask, but you don’t explain why and you end with thanks.

  9. Valuable perspective. Many of us avoid that word, no, even when it is the best for all parties. Someone else commented they liked the way you said no. Because I used to train corporations staff around time and energy management, knowing how to say no respectfully is so important. We want to both leave the door open and be able to be good to ourselves. You don’t need an excuse when you use YOUR schedule to say, Yes or No. And everyone is the better for it. Thanks Valerie!

    Over from LinkedIn group BHB.

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