How to Stop Committing to Events You Don’t Want to Attend

I signed up for a “fun run” three months ago. Now the event is lurking on my calendar as I run through excuses to get out of it. I want to be the sort of person who runs miles for pleasure. I am not. Why, then, did I say yes in the first place?

Like other people, I find myself signing up for things that I don’t actually want to do. It turns out that it’s easier to commit to something that you’re ambivalent about — your friend’s second destination wedding, an open-mic night with your co-workers — as long as the event takes place in the future, said Hal Hershfield, a professor of behavioral decision making and psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of “Your Future Self.”

In his research, Dr. Hershfield has found that we often agree to things that we don’t want to do because we tend to hold a more aspirational version of our “future selves”— we like to think we have more time, interests and generosity than we actually do. Then the event approaches, the truth is revealed (we’re still the same person) and we’re stuck with a twinge of regret. (This tendency is also called the “Yes … Damn” effect, as in: “Yes, I’ll do the thing. Damn! I wish I hadn’t said yes.”)

How, then, do we stop this cycle? Experts lay out some strategies to set a more realistic schedule.

An empty calendar, Dr. Hershfield said, tricks us into “thinking that the future will be some magical land of free time.” So before you commit to something a few months away, check your current schedule.

Glance over the last two weeks of your calendar, Dr. Hershfield said, to give yourself a clear idea of how much time you usually have in a given week. If things are rushed this week, they will probably be hectic the week of your neighbor’s community theater debut in “Brigadoon.”

If an event is months away, Dr. Hershfield said, envision that it takes place next week, or the week after. Would you commit? If the answer is no, it probably won’t feel any more enticing a few months from now, he said.

There are some events, of course, that are obligatory and should not be skipped, such as a memorial service or a work retreat. Others may inspire dread but have a payoff. (For me, one is donating blood.)

If you are ambivalent, weigh the cost by asking yourself a few questions, Dr. Hershfield said. You might explore how saying yes fits into higher-level goals you have, like getting fit or making more friends. Or, he said, you might ask if the thing you’re dreading is “a one-off event, or will it lead to other invitations?” Another good one: Will showing up be low stakes for me, while making a big difference for someone else? If it will, then the hassle may be worth it.

If you have trouble saying no on behalf of your future self, try the “no-yay technique” devised by Dilip Soman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Toronto. When Dr. Soman turns down an event he doesn’t want to do — say, attending a conference — he puts it on his calendar with a note saying: “Did not agree to do this.”

Later, when he’s relaxing in his backyard, “I’ll get a calendar notification reminding me that I could have been at a crowded airport trying to get onto a flight back home,” Dr. Soman said, adding that “this contrast helps reinforce my decision to say no.”

If you’ve committed to an event, or you know that life is going to become busy or stressful, be kind to yourself by practicing “pre-care.” That is what Nedra Glover Tawwab, a therapist and author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace,” calls the act of “creating practices that reduce future stress.”

“What can you do today to prepare for what’s ahead?” Tawwab said. It could be carving out alone time or increasing the time you spend with friends, she said. What feels nurturing is different for everyone, Tawwab said, but “you should avoid anything that does not seem delightful to you.”

I’m going to practice pre-care for my not-so-fun run. When I come home from the run, I’ll have some chocolate chip cookie dough in the fridge, ready for baking.

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