I sometimes do this thing where I agree in advance to meet up and then back out at the last minute — because I'm tired, because I'm overwhelmed, or because I never really wanted to hang in the first place.
It's not something I'm proud of, but it's the truth.
Dan Ariely — a Duke University behavioral economist whose time is a lot more in demand than mine — has a simple solution to this problem. It's called "cancel elation," and Ariely shared it in an interview with psychologist Ron Friedman during the Peak Work Performance Summit.
"Cancel elation simulates your experience if someone canceled that task or event. Ask yourself how you would feel if you accepted an invitation and then found out it had been canceled.
"If you feel elation, you don't want to do it. You're doing it out of obligation or discomfort with saying no. If you're sad, then you should accept the invitation — it's something you want to do. It's a way to check how you feel about a request."
There is an important caveat to this trick. You probably shouldn't use it at the office — if your boss invites you to check in this afternoon, and you know you'd be thrilled if she canceled the meeting because you're totally unprepared, you are still not in a position to decline the invitation.
But if a former coworker asks you to grab coffee so he can "pick your brain" about your new career field, and the day he's picked is the day before you have a huge project due, the "cancel elation" strategy will probably come in handy.
Instead of saying "yes, of course" out of a sense of obligation, think about how you'd feel if your former coworker suddenly canceled or postponed the coffee date.
As Ariely suggested, if you'd be delighted, say "no" now. It'll prevent you from a) seeming like a flake when you back out at the last minute or b) sitting through the coffee date completely distracted and miserable.
If you find yourself constantly declining invitations, you might want to dig deeper to figure out why. But in general, the "cancel elation" strategy is a simple way to get real with yourself, and to avoid creating bigger problems in the long run.
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