Oh Captain! My Captain!
Hi there, and thanks for running such an awesome blog. I have a question about schedule management and how to (politely) avoid overcommitting myself.
I’m a pretty busy person – I work 4 days a week, but seem to fill my time around this without much effort! I always have a project on the go, I seem to generate quite a bit of life admin (finances, doctors appointments, keeping my house nice, etc.) and I try to stay healthy and alive (lots of sleep, cooking at home, exercise, etc.). I live in a big, buzzing city where there’s always something fun to do and good people to do it with, and I’m non-monogamous, so I have 2 partners I see weekly, plus some ‘comets’ who zoom in and out of my life at various intervals.
Right now, my schedule is mostly dashing from one thing to the next, always worrying about how I’m going to fit everything in, be a good partner/friend/family member/employee and take care of myself as well. I don’t like this – it’s fine on occasion, those days happen – but I mostly want to feel like I’m not letting people down or making people feel like I’m squeezing them in around the rest of my life.
I try not to overcommit, but find it hard to know how to say no to social invites/suggestions for hanging out when 1) the people inviting me are lovely and good company and 2) I don’t have a reason to say no. I’m not busy that day, I just don’t want to say yes to a party or hanging out 3 weeks in advance because I get to that week and find that my calendar is full, getting enough sleep will be a struggle, I won’t see partners/close friends and none of my mundane (but fairly important) self care will get done.
Is there a script for saying no without sounding like a dick? Especially when someone lovely contacts me saying ‘We should hang out more, how about a drink sometime?’ I’d love to say yes, I know we’ll have a good time hanging out, but I’d rather leave that time open for closer friends, partners, personal projects and even a little spontaneity! I don’t want to come across like an asshole who thinks they’re too busy and important to make new friends (and apologies if that’s how I’ve come across in this e-mail!) – I just want to save most of my energy for the people already in my life, who are very important to me. And a little for myself 🙂
Not A Dick, Just Busy
Dear Just Busy,
I like your question not least because it dovetails nicely with a recent discussion about socializing and inviting people and being invited (#971). Also in between the #thisfuckingguy and the #ihavesomethoughtsaboutmanagingyourreproductivechoices and the #bugsactualbugsohmygod discussions we need some #heytheseareprettygoodproblems threads. So, hello! Welcome!
What I’m reading in your question is a strong desire to enjoy everything your city and your life has to offer, a strong desire to make room for new and wonderful people, and also a need to arrange your schedule so that you can do this more sustainably. And then you need some scripts for declining invitations without being, as you put it, a dick.
The scripts are easy. First principle: Saying “no” to an invitation does not make you a jerk. “No” is not mean. It’s not rude. It’s not wrong. It’s actually the right thing to do if you don’t want to go or can’t make it. People might be disappointed that you can’t make it, but they will handle their disappointment. If you are declining a specific invitation but want to send the message that you’d like to go to something else, another time, try this:
- “Thank you, that sounds wonderful, but I’m not free that night. Is this a regular event? Can we set something up for next time?”
- “Thank you, that sounds like a great time, but I have to decline this time. But I’d love to see you – Would you like to meet up on (future alternate day) for (future alternate activity)?”
- “Thank you for thinking of me, but I don’t play golf. Can I skip that part of the day and join all of you for Wonder Woman screening later?”
- “Thanks, I’d love to but this week is really over-scheduled. Can I check my calendar and find a better time? I’d love to hang out with you soon.”
- The approximate note I wrote Mr. Awkward when he first contacted me on OkCupid: “I really like your profile and I think your pictures are very handsome! I would very much like to go on a date with you, but I am recovering from a gross chest cold. Can I get in touch when I’m less likely to cough on you?“
As you rephrase and adapt these for your own uses, let’s talk about structure & steps. If you’d like to be invited again and/or make other plans:
- Thank them for the invitation.
- Do you need to give a reason*? Sometimes your family is in town and you can’t make any plans for that weekend. Sometimes you need a night off to wash the dog, but you don’t need to send the message “I’d rather be washing the dog than do whatever you invited me to.” Especially since you’re new at and nervous about saying “no thanks,” try being aware of this and practicing doing so without a big apology or over-justifying it.
- Express interest and enthusiasm in doing something else.
- Actually follow up and make those alternate plans. This is how you actually show that you want to spend time with this person.
Second Principle: It’s okay to prioritize certain people in your life.
Wanting to spend time with close friends, romantic partners, and yourself doesn’t mean “you’re too busy and important to make new friends.” Or, it does, but it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. There are way, way, way more cool people in the world than I have the time and energy to invest in on a deep bilateral level. It’s okay to have a mix of romantic partners, very close friends/”chosen family,” actual family, situational friends (work friends, Mitzi who you love seeing at Improv Class but do not see otherwise), childhood friends, Facebook friends, friends who live far away, friendships based around sending each other rude .gifs and links to terrible songs, plus a whole host of “I liked talking to you that one time at that event and it’s nice to run into you again!”-people, fans of your creative work, people you vaguely know from Twitter, etc.It’s also okay to like someone a lot and know that you don’t have the bandwidth to get closer. See them when you can see them and enjoy that time. You can be sociable and kind without trying to Kindred Spirit up everyone you meet!
Third principle: If it’s important to you, schedule it.
You seem like a person with a lot of love in your heart, so let’s let’s talk about how to make room for your chosen few and yourself and for the adventure of lovely new people in your busy schedule. There are two very helpful tools or practices for time management and life management that friends have taught me about: “The Time Grid” and “Wife Night.”
The Time Grid is a pretty common and simple time-management tool – there are fancy planners built around it and a therapist or tutor might recommend it to help you keep track of how you spend your time. Some people use iCal or Google Calendar or other apps. I made this version shown below in a word processing program, which I think will be useful for you because it shows the whole week:
To use it, print out a couple of copies on a piece of paper. Use a pencil to block out the commitments that you know you have in a given week (work days and appointments and social commitments you’ve already scheduled). Also pencil in routine things, like the time you spend getting ready and commuting. I always suggest observing what’s happening before you try to change what’s happening, so if you do decide to use this tool, maybe just use it to track how you do spend your time for a couple of weeks. Fill it out without judging it or interrogating it for a couple of weeks and then compare and see what you found out.
- Where are you spending your social units?
- What are you forgetting to account for (solo time, exercise, reading, relaxing, the whole business of making and eating food)?
- Is there something you wish you were doing with time that you’re not doing now? Where could you fit it in?
Once you have some data about how you do spend your time, and you’ve thought a little bit about how you want to use your time, use the grid (or app, or planner of your choice) as a planning tool. Like so:
This is a made-up sample for discussion purposes, not a prescription for what anyone’s schedule should look like and certainly not what mine looks like. Some notes/questions:
If you live with your partner you’d see them every day, or maybe they’d sleep over or you’d sleep over more nights than just the one, but is there a dedicated “we hang out together during non-bed-hours” night in your schedule? I put one into the sample.
Are there regular social things you do – sports or choir or performing arts or class or hobby? I put two of those into the sample on weeknights.
There are some sample red-purple blocks called “Open Time.” Some weeks those might involve a lot of creative or personal project work. Some weeks those might involve a lot of housework, or sleep, or solo time, or more time with a partner & good TV, or kicking ass in a video game. Additionally, when you find those blocks in your schedule, you might carve one out as “Social-Catch-Up” time or “New People, New Experiences” time, as in, “Thanks for the invitation, that sounds great, but I’m not free. Can we do something soon? Thursdays are usually good nights for me to schedule something.”
Which brings us to “Wife Night.”
“Wife Night” is a semi-ironic take on Judy Brady’s classic feminist essay “I Want A Wife.” My friends B. and L. came up with it when they lived together as roommates and B. continued it when she lived alone. It is a night set aside every week to take care of routine home-and self-maintenance tasks i.e. act as your own “Wife” – In the 1950s fantasy sense of that word. You’re free to reject ironic gender-essentialism and name it anything you want to, but if you wish to institute it here’s what it could look like:
- Pick one sacred night of the week and block it out for solitude and getting stuff done.
- Put on some good music.
- Turn off/tune out of your cell phone/the internet/emails/texts/interruptions except for scheduled short breaks.
- Feed yourself something delicious and nutritious.
- Plan the week: Meals, clothes, social stuff, money, errands, calls/emails that need returned, RSVPs. What has to be done?
- Pay bills, check on your various financial affairs.
- Do the “little stuff” that accumulates.What would be nice to get done but never actually gets done because you’re too busy? Sew a stray button on, put air in your bike tires, hang up that piece of art you keep meaning to hang up, clean and oil your leather boots, address & stamp your grandma’s birthday card for dropping in the mail tomorrow, etc. If you don’t get to all of the tasks this week, cool – add them to the list for future Wife Nights.
- Water the plants.
- Be nice to your body (whatever that means to you).
- If you can manage it, put clean sheets on the bed, swap out dirty towels for clean ones, scoop out the litter box, and make sure you go to bed with no dirty dishes in the kitchen sink.
- I’m pretty sure B. puts on pearls and wears a jaunty apron at least some of the time for Wife Night. She’s a designer by trade, so I’m equally sure she is sometimes using power tools and/or literally inventing a new kind of process or tool or device. As always, your mileage may vary.
Letter Writer, I hope this helps. Plot out your time so you know what your schedule looks like. Make space for the people closest to you. Leave a little wiggle room so you can connect with new people. Schedule solitude so you can take care of yourself. Answer invitations sincerely and without guilt for when you have to say no. Give yourself breathing room and lots of chances to get it right.
*Especially with parties and Facebook invites: The hosts need the information that you can’t attend more than they need a description of why you can’t attend on the event wall. Click the “not going” button and move on! If you need to tell the person “Ugh, I want to come to the premiere of your one-woman-show but I’m in a wedding that day. I’m so proud of you and I’ll be thinking of you, break a leg!” contact them privately.