Unpacking and Debunking My Favorite Excuse: “I Have To”

Apparently, it is the god damn Wild West out there these days. A recent email I sent was met with an out-of-office message that threw me into an emotional tailspin. Here’s what it said — and I’m paraphrasing, but you’ll get the gist:

Hi! I am out of the office until [irrelevant dates]. When I get back, I will delete everything and set my inbox to zero. If you’ve sent me an email that I’ve yet to respond to, please re-send upon my return.

What the true fuck. There is no way this is allowed.

Turns out it is. Turns out I, and probably you, too, can go down to inbox zero or do anything we want so long as we put our minds to it — a statement I deliver with absolutely zero hint of a “you go girl” attitude nor “I am just sad and kidding, we are all screwed” irony. It’s a matter of reevaluating our thinking and re-setting priorities in the process.

I used to spend an enormous portion of my life handing out the same business card of a canned excuse that said, “I don’t have a choice.”

I have to skip dinner tonight because I have to hit a deadline. I don’t have a choice. 

I don’t want to get a drink with that girl but I have to. She’ll kill me if I bail. I don’t have a choice.

I must deal with all of these emails today because, if I don’t, I’ll let the ones I can’t or don’t want to deal with fester in my inbox as a reminder of my inadequacy, my ever-growing to-do list and my guilt, and eventually, I will have to deal with those emails, too. I don’t have a choice.

Accepting my lack of choice in the matter frequently took the cause for blame off my shoulders. When it came to work-related excuses, it got me off the hook; you can’t get mad at someone for skipping something when that someone doesn’t have a choice! It was a devil’s trade, however, because in return, it took away any sense of control over my life. When I told myself I “had” to do something, like attend a social event that I’d much rather skip, I felt beholden to the plan as though it were either that or…I don’t know what. The option to opt out was not an option.

A year ago, I had a thing with a guy who got mad at me because I worked too much. (He was dramatic. I couldn’t leave work early for 5 p.m. drinks, couldn’t meet him midday for lunch, couldn’t play hooky like he wanted.) My excuse was always, “I don’t have a choice.” Then one day, after the final straw, he said the only smart thing to come out of his mouth the entire time we were whatevering: “Actually, you do have a choice — work, or me. You’ve just already made it.” At the time, I argued this wasn’t true, but he was right. My career that summer was my priority, not him. In fact, almost every time I employed this line in the past I did, actually, have a choice, and I made it: I’ve skipped dinners in the name of adult responsibility and attended social obligations so as not to offend, or to uphold commitments. That inbox of mine, that all-you-can-eat well of looming, taunting, auto-refilling distractions — I didn’t have to empty it like a bladder each night before I went to bed. No one at work made me. I chose to.

For some reason, the realization that these were my choices, that I was in control, not beholden instead to some grand marionette overhead, didn’t click all the way into place until I received that outrageous out-of-office notice. When I first read it, I was indignant. I brought it up to everyone I ran into. I yelled at it like my dad does to the television. “You can’t do that!!!”

But why not? So this woman chose to clear her inbox and start fresh upon her return from vacation. She was upfront about it. Those who needed her knew when to get back in touch. It wasn’t irresponsible. In fact, it was probably extremely productive. No way would this method fly in every office, but it made me think about how much undue weight I put on my own tasks — both self-assigned and those that fall under my job description. I’ve always thought it was bullshit that you can “choose” to be in a good mood, or “choose” to be positive; I still struggle with that part of choice. But this is tangible. This is actionable. You can choose to do whatever the hell you want to better accommodate your own life: how you organize your time, how you spend your money, who you hang out with.

That doesn’t mean you make the choice to not answer emails or not attend the birthday dinner and poof — everyone with an urgent request and a party hat is on-board with your agenda. Your landlord will not say, “You chose to spend rent money on shoes instead? No worries! Way to exercise your agency!” Just as you do when you set boundaries, you must consider the potential consequences of your choices and then prioritize: does the (potential) outcome of your choice outweigh the (potential) end result? Which is more important?

I did not delete my entire inbox, but I did choose to delete all the emails I hadn’t addressed in a year. I chose to decline a few social things I really didn’t want to attend after weighing the pros and cons. I chose to go to something awful in the name of friendship. Last week, I chose to leave work for a fun dinner when I still had stuff to finish. This morning, I chose to wake up early for a deadline push. The liberation is not so much in the thing itself — certainly there’s no sigh of relief in facing the blank screen of an arduous to-do or the door of a terrible, too-loud restaurant. But realizing I have more control of my days and nights than I previously internalized is a revelation. Like, I’d put that in my auto-response message before anything else.

Photo by Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images.

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  • Alison

    Out of office auto-response is the BEST. Go for it, Amelia!

  • Hayley

    This piece really resonates with me. I am a huge advocate of taking time for yourself, recharging, etc., and I find that I sometimes feel guilty for it in relation to my work life, but I don’t think I should. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, I will not work on anything work-related once I get home for the day.

  • Bria

    Loved reading this piece. “… the entire time we were whatevering.” is so good, lmao.

  • Sonia

    I am Queen of relying on “I have no choice excuses” to get out of things. So I’m wondering, when you said no to certain social obligations, what did you say instead of the “i have a deadline.”

    • Jac

      I’ve found that as I accept the fact that i can’t/don’t want to do certain things more, I feel less of a need to tell someone why, and “I’m really sorry, I can’t make it” actually does suffice most of the time

    • rolaroid

      “Sorry, I can’t make it.” The end. Folks don’t get as up-in-arms about this than we think they do.

    • Amelia Diamond

      I try to channel my grandfather who said “never complain, never explain.” right now i’m a fan of “ahhh i wish i could but i cannot! Thank you for the kind invite!!!”

  • Maeve

    Something I’ve toyed with (and not had the guts to implement…yet!) is an out-of-office auto response that is set to be on daily from 6 pm- 6 am. Just something friendly stating that I will likely not see your email until the morning, and if it is truly urgent, please call me. Then at least I’m making the absolute CHOICE to check in on work in the evening (if i do) because the expectations on my time are communicated clearly

    • Adrianna

      I make it very clear to colleagues that I do not have work e-mail on my phone to maintain a healthy work/life balance, (I’ve used those terms), and I am generally unavailable beyond the hours I am contracted to work. (9m-6pm).

      I’m also paid an hourly rate, so I will not work for free.

  • rolaroid

    I recently almost burned out from work and all the things that I thought I had to do outside of work, I realized, her — I can just fucking cancel everything. The only thing I HAVE to do is take care of ME. I still have the occasional commitment but as someone who was always fully booked 2 weeks ahead of time, suddenly deciding if I feel like it when the time comes is tremendous. Listen to yourself. And guess what, everyone understands and those who don’t can shove it. I’m tired. I want to read.

    • kellymcd

      “I’m tired. I want to read.”

      AMEN to this. Plus, reading is free as opposed to most social outings

  • leilanigl

    Yes yes yes yes yes to ALL of this. I used to turn off all notifications save texts/calls on my phone for this reason! I had a director (best boss) at my company strongly suggest it for everyone once and it was glorious and well-timed and good advice. I had to reset my phone recently and I’m going to go re-do all my notifications in a minute – lol I was wondering why my phone time/stress was creeping up.

    Their line was that all our phones/emails/autoresponders are just tools, and we have control over them.

    • leilanigl

      (Total aside but I love talking about productivity ‘hacks’. Favourite tool: boomerang, to schedule emails to send later. Trains clients/coworkers/juniors that I’m not going to respond out of business hours, and they shouldn’t either, even if I’m online in the evening and powering through my inbox because I feel like it. Drafts work but there’s something nice about knowing you don’t have to remember to hit send.)

      • Amelia Diamond

        I LOVE boomerang. what else ya got?

        • leilanigl

          It’s SO GOOD. I dunno, the google inbox beta? It’s a delight. I love setting reminders for myself so I don’t have to think, or postponing emails until the day I actually need that info. Muzzle for no notifications (handy for video calls but also just life). Leaving your charger plugged in in a room other than your bedroom?
          I think I read about it here, but I 1000% aspire to be that person who puts their phone in plane mode save for well-timed productivity breaks. I am not that person.

  • Alyssa

    Yes yes yes yes!!!

  • Amber MB

    “You can choose to do whatever the hell you want to better accommodate your own life: how you organize your time, how you spend your money, who you hang out with.” Boom boom boom.

  • Caroline Christianson

    Have you seen the Stephen Covey time management matrix? Changed my life.

    • Amelia Diamond

      no! looking into this now

      • Lennon

        This entire article SPOKE to me – thank you! Would you mind sharing the actual out-of-office response? Or maybe just the sentence where she explains the inbox zero part? Thanks again 🙂

  • Well put, Amelia!

    I’m definitely guilty of doing this, and it really does start to make you feel like you don’t control anything in your own life. It’s a nasty habit that, based on the other comments I read, LOTS of us have to work on!

    Best of luck with your inbox! It’s a lot like doing laundry – it’s NEVER fully done!

  • Jay


    Subconsciously I was knowing this all the time… like that staying to 11pm at work was actually my choice and not the deadline the next day… or that not meeting my friends cause of that deadline and me wanting to perform was my choice. Or that me telling myself I really dont need those boots. Or that blazer. Me saying no to nights at the movies. Me having home made lunch instead of going out. Me staying in on Fridays. Me doing… whatever. Or not doing it.

    But yeah. Most of the times I put an excuse.

    Though, honestly, why do we have to? Do we always have to justify our choices? I wish I had not to. I wish it would be more accepted to set your priorities. Like maybe this month it is work. Sorry, friends, and boyfriend , but thats the way it is. And maybe next month it is family, and well, sorry, boss, I need this trip home. And the month after, maybe its me, and sorry world, I just dont want you right now…

    I guess this has two aspects to it:

    Figuring out whether/what you really wanna do.

    And communicating that.

    You’re right Amelia, it is totally about boundaries. And those are hard to set. But if we dont wanna loose our minds (and find time to watch the Chanel shows ) I guess we have to.

  • Kattigans

    I’ve been conscientiously opting out of things I don’t want to do and don’t need to do. I like to do social things during the week but to an extent. Same with weekends. I don’t care if people get mad but even if I’m free one night and someone wants to do something, I have no issue saying “sorry I can’t”. Yeah sometimes I just want a me night, a gym night, a whatever night that doesn’t involve others. Nothing wrong with owning your own time, life, money and choices without having to give drawn out reasons as to why. I’m a lot happier in the end.

    Luckily I also work in an office that values work-life balance. I have an understanding boss so on days when I just have to get out of the office early, because I may lose it if I have to stay longer, he understands.

  • Why did I automatically assume that the out of office must have come from a guy! Wow