How to Bail Without Being a Jerk

Man ponders in front of his laptop.
Man ponders in front of his laptop.
Photo: Geber86/Getty Images

Everyone is a flake in 2020.

You make outdoor dining plans, set deadlines on a work project, promise to proof a friend’s resume. But when the deadline arrives, so does the horrifying truth: It’s just not gonna happen.

It’s understandable. When life is rapidly changing, it’s normal to believe next week or next month might be a little less crazy. So we say “yes” too often, partly to pad our calendars, and partly because it feels good to be needed. We say yes because it’s attractive to be the “yes” person — the one who has it so together she never has to say no. But mostly we say yes because we’re seeking some kind of assurance that later will be better than now.

But sometimes it’s not, and you need to find the exit.

Every time you bail at the last minute, it feels like you’re admitting — to yourself and your flakee — that you’re not in control of your plans or your life. This feels terrible! Getting ahead of it allows you to keep your dignity intact and move on.

It also lets you regain control.

Owning up to our current twisted circumstances can actually bring us closer together. Saying, “I’m actually not okay” or “I can’t” isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of respect. Because when we’re honest about our imperfections, we become more forgiving of others and, most importantly, ourselves. You may end up closer to the person than you were before. But it requires vulnerability and candor.

Here are the rules for ethically flaking:

Take advantage of the pre-flake period (PFP)

There’s a period of time in the flaking process where you know you’re going to bail but you can’t bring yourself to say so. You still may be able to avoid the flake.

First, assess the situation. What are the stakes? How disastrous will a flake be? Are you just anxious about being able to get a thing done on time, or are you sure it can’t happen? Is the thing crucial, or skippable? Is this a friend thing, a boss thing, a brand-new co-worker thing? The more solid your relationship, the more honest you can be with your recipient.

Then, ask yourself: Will I realistically do this later? And not in the “perfect future” later. If everything in your life remains exactly the same as now, will you in the realistic future be able to write that 2,500-word article about the breeding habits of lemurs? If the answer is no, move on to Step Three.

But if you are sure you’ll get this done, ask for more time. Think of this as flake prevention.

Let’s say today is Monday, and my lemur article is due on Friday. After looking at my calendar, I see major obligations interrupting my schedule all week.

Two options:

  1. Delude myself into thinking I’ll get the work done on time, run out of time, not write the article, then disappear, and die from shame.
  2. Come up with a reasonable timeline and email my editor on Monday, days ahead of the actual deadline.

Terrence, hi!

I’m working on the lemur article due Friday and it’s coming along nicely. This week got unexpectedly busy and I could use some extra time to put on the finishing touches. Would it be possible to get copy to you by Monday at 5 p.m.? If you need it sooner, I understand and can make it happen.

You’re providing an update, requesting an extension with a clear timetable, being flexible, and you’re forcing the other party to be your unwitting accountability buddy.

Sending this note feels so much better than blowing a deadline and waiting for someone to show up in your inbox with the dreaded: “Just checking in…”

Here’s another example. If the obligation is to a friend and you want to reschedule, tell them early, be honest, and suggest an alternative.

Cassie! I was looking forward to hanging this weekend but I’m not feeling up to getting out right now and think I need to stay in. I’m sorry! But if you’re free later this month, I’d love to see you at Suzy’s birthday in the park.

People rarely get mad if you flake early. Making someone wait around for a response is a different story.

Flake as early as possible

You’ve decided this obligation is never going to happen. You’re free! Now you have to get out of it in a responsible way. Your goal is to preserve your relationship and not unnecessarily burn a bridge.

Silence is the enemy. No one likes being ignored, and flaking via mysterious disappearance is aggravating and confusing.

So I’ve admitted to myself I’ll never write the lemur article. Maybe I’ve moved on to aardvarks, or maybe I just enrolled in zookeeper school and got too busy.

Instead of disappearing or asking for a time extension that won’t help, I could simply tell my editor I can’t do it.

Terrence, hi!

I made some progress on the lemur article, but have to be honest: I kind of hit a wall. Like everyone else, I’ve been juggling a lot of priorities recently, and realize my focus has moved from lemurs to aardvarks. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to write this for you after all. I’m sorry to go back on my commitment and hope this doesn’t mess up your fall lemur coverage too much.

You’re being honest, acknowledging it’s not going to happen, and being genuinely apologetic.

Offset the flake with an alternative solution

But flaking doesn’t mean you have to slink off into the night, lemur tail between your legs. You can still be useful, even when you flake. Here’s a sentence I would add to the above email:

If you’d like to assign this piece to another writer, I do have one name for you. Kara Cutruzzula is an excellent writer and expert on all things lemur. She’s at karacutloveslemurs@gmail.com.

Offering an alternative shows you’re invested in helping the other person. Yes, you created a problem, but you’re being thoughtful and providing a solution. (Plus, you’re helping a friend, too.) That tiny bit of extra work tells your contact that maybe you’re a flake, but you’re a well-meaning, resourceful one.

Better yet: Avoid the flake altogether

The writer Derek Sivers is an advocate of the “hell yeah or no” philosophy, which declares that if your immediate response to an opportunity or invite isn’t, Hell yeah, I want to do that! then you should say no because you’ll end up resenting the obligation in the future.

The “hell yeah or no” question also prevents future flaking. If you’re not excited in the moment, there’s a small chance your wishy-washy acceptance will turn into a full “hell yeah.” And saying yes to an obligation you secretly hope won’t happen is worse than saying no.

Another question to prevent a future flake: If the [offer/meeting/opportunity/assignment] was happening today, would you say yes? This places an amorphous future obligation into the present — and reveals how you might respond later.

Flaking ethically involves having a good relationship with your future self. Treat that future self with respect, and all your relationships will be stronger as a result.

Journalist, playwright & author of DO IT FOR YOURSELF, a motivational journal. My newsletter encourages you every morning: https://bit.ly/2EysSdu

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