"Iwish I could say yes" -- a phrase coined by one woman who couldn't bring herself to say no.

It's that time when PTA presidents, preschool teachers, Sunday school coordinators, neighbors in need of a car pool are all out in full force. And sometimes it seems they all make a beeline right for an easy mark -- you.

"Can you head the Welcome Back picnic?" "We need you to make brownies for the church bazaar . . ."

"Can you drive both ways to Hebrew school this week?"

All of these are reasonable requests for help. It seems like we should be able to oblige. So many of us, without even consulting our calendars or Palm Pilots, simply say yes. And, before we know it, the lazy days of summer are a balmy memory and we've jumped right back on the treadmill of the overscheduled, overstressed, over-committed mom (this seems to be a uniquely female phenomenon).

So what is it that makes so many of us say yes when we want to say no? Is it wanting to be liked or appreciated? Is it a sense of obligation, or an unrealistic expectation, or just plain, old-fashioned guilt? It's probably all of these things and more.

"If you say yes [to something], you really want to learn to say yes honestly," says Brock Hansen, a D.C.-based life coach and counselor (www.change-for-good.org). "You need to learn to decide what your priorities are, and what's important to you -- don't let others decide for you."

Perhaps the only thing worse than saying no when we should is ending up failing to do what we said we would. Chicago author Leslie Levine has been there:

"I started learning how to say no when I realized that sometimes when I say yes, I end up with egg (the white AND the yolk) on my face, because I end up backing out of something.

"That's never a good thing, and it's a move that doesn't reflect well on my feelings about commitments."

Creating a healthy space between you and the commitment can be achieved by adding a simple, yet truthful, phrase to your vocabulary: "Let me think about it." It seems so obvious, but the first step toward a manageable schedule comes when you realize that yes and no aren't the only options.

"It's important to pause to think about what you're agreeing to, and whether or not it will be something you'll regret," says Hansen. "Take the time to sit down and think about the demands the request will make on your time and energy, and how it fits with what's really important in your life."

So you've considered the request, you've consulted your calendar -- now it's time to say yes or no, right? Not exactly, according to Hansen.

"Another alternative is to offer to do some part of what needs to be done, or to offer to help in some other way." Sell tickets to the school carnival, rather than organizing the entire event, or offer to make a limited number of phone calls to help find someone who is willing to be the chairman. Getting your priorities straight is always good advice.

For local working mom Stacy Canan, learning to say no became easier when a certain paradox came into focus. "I eventually started to say no when, after years of doing volunteer work [ostensibly] for my kids' benefit -- nursery school board member, PTA chairperson, room parent -- I was taken aback with the irony that the time I gave to volunteering kept me from spending time with my kids!"

More than one woman said she learned to say no when she hit 40 or so. The combination of their own mortality -- "I've only got so much time left, I want to make it count," and a certain dogged petulance -- "I just don't want to spend any more time doing things I don't want to do" -- seemed to cure these women of their yes habit.

A habit, indeed, according to Jane Osborne, who specializes in personal, executive and business coaching. "You can't break a habit just by talking about it, but with practice you can change it."

Osborne believes the problem is rooted in the very nature of our society. "We seem to have a culture around people doing things they don't want to do. People want to 'be it all' to everyone, because that's how they feel they'll be accepted as part of a group. We have a lot of social and cultural norms that push people in the direction of saying yes even though they don't want to."

To begin to break the yes habit, Osborne suggests starting with honest introspection.

"When you think of saying no, you need to listen to what goes on in your head," she says. For example, are you worried the person asking for your help will think you're a bad daughter or a bad friend if you turn them down -- a description you know isn't accurate? Or are you thinking, perhaps irrationally, that you "should" be able to meet all the various demands being made on your time?

"Watch out for 'should' -- that's a word we beat ourselves up with all the time," Osborne says. Once you've realistically considered your thought process, you need to learn to budget your time the same way you budget your money.

"People need to take a look at the requests that they're getting, and really decide if these things are important to them. Then, they need to look at their schedule and consider dropping things that aren't important."

Once your schedule is adjusted to include things that really matter to you, when a new request comes along, you can re-prioritize, but you can also say no if you feel overwhelmed. "Everyone has a right to say no," Osborne says.

Asserting the right to say no was the inspiration for the Mary and Martha group, a self-described support group for women who wanted to learn to say no more often.

The group's name, taken from a Bible story, is illustrative of the group's purpose. In short, when Jesus came to visit sisters Mary and Martha, Mary immediately planted herself at his feet, the better to bask in his wisdom. Martha, on the other hand, scurried about making a meal for everyone. When Martha implores Jesus to get her sister to help her, Jesus tells her to stop getting all upset, that in fact "Mary has chosen the better part." Translation: Don't become too caught up in the small tasks, or you won't be paying attention to what's important.

"Don't give so much that you have nothing left for yourself," is how Bethesda mom and group founder Terry Harris sees it.

Harris and some friends saw a liturgical drama that presented the Mary and Martha story, and they found the parallel to their own lives prophetic. The women decided to meet for one hour, once a month. Even though the meetings rotate through the women's houses, no one is truly the "hostess" -- everyone is expected to bring her own lunch.

"We didn't want any Marthas," says Harris.

Initially, the group's discussions revolved around a book based on the Mary and Martha story, titled "Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World: Finding Intimacy With God in the Busyness of Life," by Joanna Weaver.

And, although, as the title suggests, there is a strong spiritual aspect to the group, Harris feels it's come to mean something else.

"We try to focus on real-life stuff," she says. When one member was at loose ends when she was asked to be PTA president, the group came to her aid.

"She said how busy and totally overwhelmed she was, and we helped talk her through it. We asked her if she wanted to say no, and when she said she did, we said, 'Good -- you can say no!' " It wasn't always easy for Harris. She can remember a time when she was "drowning in my own volunteerism." But she hasn't become a slacker, either. She's just learned to only take on as much as she can handle, and to make sure it matters to her.

"The older I got, I began to realize that I couldn't do everything for everyone. I needed some down ntime to rejuvenate.

"I got worn out of trying to do it all. Now, my theme is 'simplify' -- if it doesn't simplify my work or my business, I won't do it." Harris believes people need to craft a "mission statement" for their lives, consisting of what's truly important to them.

"Develop your own priorities of what's important to you and your family, and square requests [for your time] against that." For example, if you decide that being a spectator at your child's sporting events is a priority for you, don't take on something that will get in the way of that.

Harris admits the change was gradual, and that it took time to build up the confidence to not care what people thought if she turned them down. "I'll never forget the guilty feeling, and the coldness on the end of the phone the first time I said no to a volunteer project. Now I wouldn't feel bad because I've grown beyond that."

So, the next time you feel that unwanted "yes" about to cross your lips, take a moment to carefully consider the request, think about getting back to the person, or offer to do a modified version of the task. Because, after all, "am I a happy person?" is one question you always want to be able to answer with a qualified "yes."