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Published: Nov 29, 2018 6 min read

Sometimes we commit to more than we can deliver on and realize it a little too late. It’s often because saying no in the moment can be uncomfortable, so you say yes even when you don’t want to. Or you simply might not realize you can’t follow through on a promise, and you don’t want to ruin relationships and your reputation by backing out.

Withdrawing gracefully, especially for people-pleasers, isn’t an easy task. But if you’re tired of taking on too much and constantly feeling over-extended, you have to start saying no up front and turning down commitments you’ve already agreed to.

The good news is, you can back out of a work commitment without feeling the scorn of everyone around you. Here’s how.

Learn to say no the right way.

Going back on a commitment the wrong way can easily create tension. But backing out the right way lets you exit the situation gracefully, without damaging your relationship or closing yourself off to future opportunities.

Just be polite and straightforward. Avoid over-explaining and making excuses. Even though it goes against all your people-pleasing tendencies, fight your urge to apologize. Instead, genuinely thank the other person for thinking of you for this opportunity. After all, they asked you because there’s something great about the work you do, and you can appreciate them for thinking of you in that way.

In terms of delivery, there is no one right way to give this message. With such a mix of in-person and virtual teams in the world today—and no one-size-fits-all work culture—there isn’t one best practice here. Use the approach, such as email, in person, or otherwise, that works within the cultural norm of your work environment — or what works best in the specific relationship.

Steal this script if you still feel icky.

If the thought of saying no still makes you break out in a cold sweat, here’s a template you can copy and paste. This rock-solid, no-guilt script is designed to help you back out of a commitment you said yes to, and you can tweak it to say no at first request as well. And you can tweak it to almost any type of work commitment you want to say no to.

Hi [name],

When we first spoke, I was incredibly flattered that you asked me to [insert what they’re asking you to do]. [OPTIONAL: Give a genuine compliment.]

I try to be very deliberate about where I put my time, energy, and attention, and only say yes to opportunities that align with my top strengths and big-picture goals. Unfortunately, sometimes I say yes without considering the big picture, which, to my embarrassment, is what happened here.

While I would love to [insert thing they’re asking you to do], I must respectfully change my yes to a no. I'm finding myself overextended on my own internal commitments and don't see a way to make everything happen to the standards I hold myself to.

OPTION 1: While I’m unable to commit, I can happily recommend a few others who would be a great fit for this.

[list a few people]

OPTION 2: I would love to [insert thing they’re asking you to do] if it works out again, so please keep me in mind for future opportunities.

Wishing you the best,

[your name]

This script works because it’s 100% clear that you are backing out because the opportunity isn’t in alignment with what’s important to you and you’re unable to deliver. The great thing is, no one can argue with this! There’s also not an excuse or apology in sight, and you can even be of service by recommending other people, which is great for people pleasers who really truly want to help.

Be 100% convinced of your reason.

When backing out of a commitment, remember that you have a reason for saying no, whether it’s knowing you can’t (or don’t want to) deliver, feeling over-extended, or managing a client who’s overstepping boundaries.

Like spiritual teacher Byron Katie says, “Sometimes a no to you is a yes to me.” Backing out of something you’d rather not do means saying yes to your freedom, your sanity, and the things that matter the most to you. Just because you want to be great at the work you do doesn’t mean you want to stretch yourself impossibly thin and put others’ needs ahead of your own.

Stop saying yes to everything and everyone who wants a piece of you right now, and start saying yes to yourself, your career, and the work that’s important to you. Remember that being successful in any endeavor means being deliberate with your time and energy, and making decisions that serve your bigger goals — so be confident in your reason for saying no.

Jenny Shih is the creator of Make It Work Online and a business coach who has taught more than 25,000 women how to earn a full-time income working 30 hours per week or less as online, service-based entrepreneurs.