And how learning to say "no" can protect our friendships, our stress levels, and our time.

“I’m so sorry to do this, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it tonight.” We’ve all done it: your day was busier than you thought or something came up, so you send a quick text, cancelling your scheduled plans at the last minute. 

Canceling plans last-minute—“bailing”—has become so common it’s almost acceptable, even expected from some individuals. Of course, there is the rare but real emergency, simple forgetfulness, or a physical need to reschedule if our bodies are telling us to take a break. Usually, though, we bail because we have too much work to do, we have overcommitted, or we feel tired or burnt out as a result of having too much work or being overcommitted. 

But bailing wasn’t always so commonplace; in generations before us, canceling would have been almost impossible given the means of communication at the time. We all have times when rescheduling might be a wise decision, but if you find yourself in the habit of bailing, you probably aren’t enjoying it any more than your friends are. So how did we get here, and—more importantly—how do we get out?

Taking advantage of technology

At times, the convenience of technology has been hugely helpful, alerting a friend that you can’t make it to dinner due to an actual emergency. However, these instances are few and far between. Much of the time, we as a culture have taken advantage of the ease of technology. We bail because we can—if we didn’t have a way of backing out of plans at the last minute, we would have to find a way to show up. We would be there—on the date, at the restaurant, or with a friend—come hell or high water.

Our technology also enables us because we don’t have to deal with the person’s disappointment face-to-face. It is much easier to cancel plans via text rather than see the person’s face or even to call and hear her voice. Texting only takes a few seconds, and there is no immediate consequence for us. But there are long-term consequences or consequences we may not be fully aware of. Our friend that was canceled on may be hurt or disappointed (and, if this behavior becomes a habit, our friend might stop trying to connect). We may miss an opportunity for networking or to further our career. But, sometimes, not going to whatever we committed to seems to actually reward us—we have more time or feel less stressed. These reactions are usually a sign that we shouldn’t have committed to these plans in the first place.

Overcommitted

Sure, our instantly-connected, constantly-accessible world has enabled us to bail, but it is unfair to exclusively blame our collective flakiness on technology. We are the ones sending the last-minute texts, so we have a hand in it. Technology may be the means by which we bail, and it has given us a way to do so. But the root cause is something else: often, the reason we cancel plans is because we have overcommitted. Sometimes this looks like committing to too many events or activities in a given day or time period, so the last one of the day (or the one that is least interesting or important) gets the boot.

Other times, we have to cancel because we have committed to too much in our life in general. Maybe the only event you have scheduled for Wednesday is dinner out with your best friends, but you cancel because you have a lot of work to do. Although on the surface it doesn’t appear as such, this too is often a result of not being realistic with our time and commitments. If you are already committed to a demanding job or grad program (or both!), then taking on even one event when you might not be able to follow-through can still fall into the category of overcommitting. Overcommitting isn’t just about having a lot of events or activities to attend, it’s often about taking on too many roles that you don’t have time or energy for, until something has to go—cue last-minute canceling of plans.

When we wear many different hats, we sometimes set ourselves up for bailing. We juggle roles such as employee, student, CEO, friend, wife, mother, social coordinator, coach, marathon runner, PTA chair, mentor, book club member, sister, volunteer, daughter, and the list goes on. Clearly, some roles are permanent and must take priority. Others can be put on the back burner for a season or be dropped altogether if our list of titles becomes particularly long. If you notice you have canceled plans lately or have even gotten into the habit of doing so, this may be a sign that it’s time to put some of those roles on hold.

What gets in the way of our good intentions

If our plates are already full, why do we say “yes” to the plans that we end up canceling? Of course, our intentions are good. We genuinely want to see that friend we haven’t caught up with in a while. We want to go on the date we haven’t made time for. So we say “yes.”

Even when we know realistically we don’t have time, we may struggle to give someone a “no,” because it’s hard for us to tolerate her disappointment. We may also want to maintain our status as a “good” friend/employee/potential girlfriend, etc., so we say “yes” in the moment. However, when we end up bailing later on, we are still disappointing the other person—and putting at risk whatever status we may have been trying to protect. Other times, we simply don’t want to miss out (we’ve all experienced FOMO). Wanting to be there, we say “yes” in the moment, but when push comes to shove, we admit to ourselves what we knew from the start—we simply don’t have enough time.

Sometimes, we know as soon as we’re asked that we won’t have time to attend the event or follow through with the plans. But maybe we just don’t know how to say “no”—maybe no one taught or showed us, or we have no practice saying “no.” So we say “yes” out of expectation, obligation, or lack of skill. Then we bail because it’s the only way we know how to say “no.”

How to avoid bailing

For the most part, bailing results from saying “yes” when we should have or wanted to say “no,” but didn’t. So leaving the habit of bailing behind starts with being realistic about our choices and activities—what we do say “yes” to.

Take inventory of all the roles you’ve taken on and events you’ve committed to. Awareness of what’s already on your plate can help you be more realistic about what else you agree to. When invited to something, don’t give a knee-jerk “yes.” Tell the person you’ll get back to them, then pause and look at what you have going on that day. Think through how long each activity on your calendar and on your daily to-do list (including showering, making dinner, working out…) realistically takes. Even if your calendar appears open for that day, take stock of what other hats you are wearing or will be wearing at the time of the event. Is next month your busy season at work? Will your kids be out of school? Do you have school deadlines that week? Is the event at a time of day that is typically busy at your house?

It might feel awkward to ask someone to wait to get together for another month, but if you were to bail, you wouldn’t be getting together at all. Being realistic about your time and priorities is actually a service to the other person.

If you are tempted to say “yes” to an event so as not to disappoint someone, remind yourself that her disappointment if you end up bailing would be even greater. Even if a friend or loved one is disappointed by your “no” now (to avoid bailing later), remember that it’s more important to be honest and protect your time. If people react adversely to your boundaries, remind yourself that your identity and worth are not wrapped up in other people’s opinions of you.

If you’re dying to go to something (and this isn’t just a case of FOMO), explore options to see if you realistically can attend. Can you change shifts with someone at work? Can you get a babysitter for the kids for an hour? If you know in your gut (or once you work out the timing or previous commitments in your head) that it just won’t end up working out, no matter how much you want to go, saying “no” now is better than bailing later. Communicate your own disappointment about missing out to the host or your friend, letting them know how much you wanted to be there. The person is likely to receive this much better than if you had backed out at the last minute.

If you want to say “no” but don’t know how, the only way to learn is to practice. Remind yourself that saying “no” and feeling bad doesn’t equate to you being bad. Being realistic, setting limits, and saying "no" does not mean you are failing in some way. Rather, it means you respect your friends, loved ones, colleagues, or acquaintances enough to not waste their time, mess up their calendars, or let them down by bailing.

In a culture in which bailing is commonplace and moderately acceptable, breaking the habit—even if you know the other person will understand—can take time and intentionality. Give yourself some time to make the changes, and be patient with yourself. Continue to practice setting limits up front, so you don’t have to bail later. Then, hold yourself accountable to following through with the plans you have made. Being realistic with your commitments and avoiding bailing will help you have more connected relationships, be respected as more trustworthy, prevent resentment, and keep your life less stressful.