Career Path

Stop Saying, 'I'm So Busy'

It’s a phrase that has more than one meaning to your colleagues, says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

“I’m so busy”—three little words we say all the time as a way to decline invitations. It makes sense, though: Time is the most precious commodity because unlike money, we can’t make more of it.

But guess what? Everyone is busy, so while you might think the message you’re sending with “I’m so busy” is, “I’m really slammed,” what the other person really hears is, “What I’m working on is more important than you.”

Once that divisiveness sets in, things can get toxic — fast.

When someone asks you to take part in something, they want to know whether you consider them as a worthy investment of your time.

A group of researchers from Harvard Business School recently set out to understand how the way we turn down social or professional invitations affects our interpersonal perceptions and behaviors. In one experiment, they recruited 300 working adults and had them consider a scenario: They just invited a friend to dinner, and the friend declined. Some people were told their friend used money as an excuse (“I don’t have enough money”), some were told busyness was an excuse (“I don’t have time”), and the rest received no excuse at all.

“Participants found the money excuse to be much more trustworthy than a time excuse or no excuse, in part because they believed that the friend likely had less personal control over the circumstance they were citing as an excuse,” Grant Donnelly, an assistant professor of marketing and one of the study’s lead researchers, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.

The significance of this study is that it provides valuable insight into how we can be more protective of our time without making others question how much we value the relationship. As Donnelly suggests, in situations where money isn’t an appropriate excuse, it’s “more effective to decline by saying you ‘don’t have energy’ versus ‘don’t have time.’” And that’s because energy is perceived to be a more honest and less controllable reason.

Here are some effective ways to thoughtfully say no without hurting your relationships in the process:

1. Tell them what you’re up to.

Let the other person know what you have going on. Just be sure you don’t recite a laundry list of all the things you’ve done that day and all the things you need to do — just focus on your biggest accomplishments and upcoming obligations. Your goal, ultimately, is to steer the conversation from being awkward to pleasant. Telling others what you’ve been doing (even if it’s unrelated to work) also allows them to get to know you better. In turn, the other person is invited to share updates of their own, which can help to establish common ground

2. Take a rain check.

This method is especially effective when you’re declining an invitation from a superior. It can be as simple as, “I have to do X, Y and Z, but I’d still like to meet. Can we do it next week when things start to calm down?” This response allows you to show off your positive work ethics. It will also prevent your boss from thinking you’re trying to dodge face time with them. Even better, they’ll be impressed to see that you’re a capable person who is on top of their work (given that you aren’t declining their invitations every other day).

3. Be honest, lend a hand.

Even in a work environment, showing complete honesty and sincerity can boost your likability score. Let your colleague know exactly how you feel (but maintain professional boundaries by not getting too personal). Depending on what the invitation is, here are a few examples:

  •  “I can’t make it to the brainstorming meeting because I have a few deadlines to meet. I’m nowhere near finished and to be honest, I’m a bit overwhelmed. Would it be helpful if I send my ideas tomorrow morning?”
  •  “I can’t make it to your networking event next week because I have dinner plans that night. I’ve rescheduled it twice already, and I’d hate to do it again. But I know a few colleagues who would love to attend your event. Can I extend the invitation?”

The key is to show that you trust the other person enough to be honest, and that you care enough to offer support.

4. Just say yes.

Let’s face it: We never really get out of sixth grade. We want to be liked, loved, accepted and have what everyone else has. In other words, we want to stand out and win. But it’s not always all about us. When someone asks you to take part in something, they want to know whether you consider them as a worthy investment of your time. And sometimes, the best thing to do is to say yes. Being typecast as the person who is self-important and always unavailable will only hurt, not help, your career.

A version of this article appears on CNBC.com.

free career assessment
free career assessment