Whether you’ve had a particularly hectic week at work or are balancing a lot at home, sometimes life gets in the way of your plans. You’ve had a dinner reservation with an old friend who’s coming to town on the books for weeks, and although you do want to catch up, you’re running on empty from a big project rollout. Perhaps a family health matter has left you in no mood to go out for a colleague’s birthday. Or maybe you just haven’t had an evening to yourself in who knows how long, and all you want to do is hit the sheets and read your book club book. The dilemma is real: Should you stick with the plan, or should you politely back out?
As satisfying as it may feel when you cancel and your calendar frees up, the stigma of being perceived as a flake is a powerful deterrent to changing commitments we’ve made. “Doing what you say builds trust and is a cornerstone to success,” Julie Albright, Ph.D., a University of Southern California sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications and author of Left to Their Own Devices: How Digital Natives Are Reshaping the American Dream, tells Thrive. Spending time with your friends and colleagues is a well-known antidote to your stress levels, but a prolonged lack of sleep and time to recharge can leave even the social butterflies among us feeling drained and, worse, on track for burnout, she says. When it comes to our well-being, sometimes it’s actually in our best interest — and a greater courtesy to whomever we’ll be seeing — to call for a night in instead of muscling through those plans while half-awake.
If your social calendar is stressing you out, or depleting your energy instead of feeding it, the smarter move may be to take a rain check for another day when you’ll be refreshed and better equipped for deep conversation. And there’s a way to do so with full respect for how valuable everyone’s time is, and even build in breathing room for the unexpected yet inevitable ups and downs of life, should either of you need it. These simple strategies will get you started.
Know your limits, and plan accordingly
You’re likely accustomed to thinking about bandwidth when it comes to what you take on at work, but you aren’t always mindful of it when it comes to your social engagements, and whether you have the energy reserves to dedicate to these interactions. Socializing is work too, even if you’re having fun doing it. And just as you wouldn’t take on a new assignment at the office when you’re already maxed out, filling your schedule up with obligations beyond your limits can be just as taxing.
The easiest way to avoid unanticipated cancellations is to be tuned into how much socializing you’re comfortable with — how many minutes or hours at a time, and how many days of the week — before you start feeling stretched thin, and let that guide your calendar planning. This will be different for everyone. Research indicates that introverts tend to find that socializing depletes their energy after some time, whereas extroverts are typically energized by the connections they make. So if you’re an introvert and know that four out of five weeknight commitments is too much for you, communicate this in advance to show you’re eager to find a time when you’ll be able to bring your full presence to the table. And to ensure you don’t undervalue your downtime or spread yourself too thin, treat it like any other appointment by blocking it off on your calendar.
Set a one-week check in
While it’s customary to confirm a meeting the day or two before, this doesn’t leave you much time to give notice if something’s come up and you genuinely need to rethink an obligation. One small way to show courtesy is to touch base sooner, one week before the time you’d carved out, to reevaluate whether the timing’s still ideal for all parties involved. Albright suggests saying something like, “Let’s pencil it in, and revisit.’” When the time comes to check in, you’ll each have a say in reshaping the engagement to better suit your well-being needs. You might suggest an alternate venue that’ll be more your speed, like ditching a crowded bar for a walk in the park. An added bonus: Deviating from the original plan could lead to an even more memorable experience overall.
Take a respectful raincheck
If it’s too late for either measure, and you’re looking ahead to a commitment you’ve already made that’s stressing you out, resist the temptation to bail with a half-baked excuse. Compassionate directness is key to bowing out of an obligation gracefully, Albright advises. “If you didn’t sleep hardly at all the day before — tell the person,” she says. “We’ve all been through that, and an honest reason will be better than a dishonest story that won’t ring true, which could erode trust in the relationship.” The person on the other end may still be disappointed, but your directness will be appreciated. What’s more, you’ll have set a positive example for everyone involved to be more open about their own well-being needs and make them a top priority.
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