Reboot: Give Yourself the Gift of No

A reader recently suggested we reboot one of our early posts, Give Yourself the Gift of No, an entry from the 2015 holiday season. Vetting and sometimes declining opportunities is something many early career (and not-so-early career) scholars find challenging. As many of us enter into a new academic year, I offer this reboot of the post with updated content and invite our readers to share their recommendations for getting better at saying no.

Give Yourself the Gift of No (December 2015)

As an early career scholar, you have a finite amount of time so there reaches a point where saying yes to one thing means saying no to another—or where you risk overburdening yourself to the point where your performance in many or all areas of work suffers. Saying yes to x often means less time for y. This becomes problematic when x is a nonessential, unwanted task and y is a highly valued or necessary task (e.g., writing). Ideally, such decisions are driven by your professional and personal goals in conjunction with institutional expectations, especially if you are concerned about promotion and tenure. Maintaining any sense of balance in one’s professional roles and with one’s personal life will likely require accepting that we cannot and do not have to do everything. Often, this requires releasing ourselves of unrealistic expectations of personal perfection and pleasing everyone around us. Further, protecting the time needed to do well the things you need and want to do will require learning to say no to other nonessential opportunities and tasks.

Learning to say no first requires identifying your priorities so that you can easily identify requests and opportunities inconsistent with those priorities. After identifying priorities it can be helpful to build time for necessary and desired tasks into you schedule and calendar. Just as you block out time for commitments to others (e.g., class, advising appointments, committee meetings), you should schedule time for commitments to yourself to better account for your time and to ensure necessary or desired tasks do not fall by the wayside. This is especially important with research and writing time since these are often the first to be sacrificed when faced with competing demands. Yet, for many scholars, these are also the highest priority. I routinely schedule writing time on my calendar. Treating these times as nonnegotiable helps to ensure you don’t abandon this priority. Few of us would accept competing appointments when we are scheduled to teach, but it is not uncommon to accept competing appointments when we plan to write even though it is counterproductive in both the short- and long-term.

For those who have difficulty saying no, I have a colleague who admitted she notates writing time on her calendar as meetings with administrators so that others who view her calendar won’t consider infringing on the time and (perhaps more importantly) to remind herself of the importance of these appointments. A similar strategy may work for you if you are concerned that your commitment to research time won’t be accepted or respected by colleagues. The important thing is to carefully guard your time so that other activities don’t crowd out your priorities and prevent you from being productive and efficient. [Updated content] The necessity of guarding this time is something I continue to struggle with when I know the ramifications are unpleasant. With seniority comes a proliferation of competing demands that can easily encroach on my priorities if I let them. There have been times when I drop the habit of scheduling time for my own work and it’s invariably (and often seemingly immediately) filled with a variety of meetings and tasks that could have been delayed or avoided if I had been more intentional about my time. 

Another strategy that can make it easier to say no is giving yourself a minimum amount of time to consider any request or invitation. For instance, I know other EC scholars who wait at least 24 hours before responding to invitation or request for time or involvement. This disrupts an otherwise automatic tendency to say yes to everything and provides the time needed to reflect on whether an opportunity or request is consistent with one’s priorities and availability. Rather than blindly saying yes to everything, consider the potential benefits and costs, including the impact on your other work. Mentors and more senior scholars can provide valuable guidance in this decision process.

You will also have to accept the need to practice pleasantly and unapologetically saying no. Some people are incredibly uncomfortable with the possibility of disappointing others or are so conflict-avoidant they would rather say yes to everything than risk any discomfort or awkwardness, only to fall short on their own goals. Still others are motivated by some mistaken belief that they are so important that others need them to the point that they cannot say no. This is very rarely the case. Once you’ve accepted that there are times when you can and should say no, do so simply and unapologetically. It’s okay to say no without offering any more justification than you are simply unavailable. That is generally all the requester needs or is entitled to know. Practice saying, “Thank you for the invitation, but I am not available at this time.” Or “Thank you for this opportunity, but I’m unavailable.” When justification is needed, it can be helpful to link you refusal to you job duties or tenure expectations, or to have a senior colleague–generally your program or area administrator–back up your decision (e.g., “My chair/director/supervisor advised me against taking on additional service activities at this time.”). Certainly some individuals may make requests that you shouldn’t refuse, but don’t assume every request they make is one of those. Instead, ask for time to consult with your colleagues and verify your availability and then speak with more senior colleagues and/or you program/area coordinator who can help you evaluate the request, and, when appropriate, plan your refusal. At times, your administrator may want to say no on your behalf depending on who the requester is in order to protect you from politics or more convincingly state your need to focus on your priorities.

Another helpful strategy for people who tend to reflexively say yes is to remind yourself that no is the default decision unless you can identify sufficient professional or personal benefits to saying yes. For a few years, I posted a small note on my computer that read, “Just say no.” For me this visual reminder was needed to counter my knee jerk reaction to accept every research and service opportunity that came my way. It has saved me a lot of unwanted stress and time.

[Updated content] A newer strategy I adapted from a book by Gretchen Rubin is to ask myself three questions when I consider an opportunity, particularly those that are more time intensive: (1) Do I want to? (2) Do I have time? (3) Is it in line with my values or goals? If I can’t say yes to at least 2 out of 3, or if the no for #2 overshadows the others, I know I need to say no. Sometimes it takes a while to work through these questions, and that’s okay, too. Recently, when faced with an unexpected opportunity, I spent nearly month reflecting on these questions because #3 was an easy, resounding yes but the others took more time. Ultimately, this reflection led me to say no to the opportunity but it also meant I was very confident in my eventual decision. My knee-jerk reaction was to say yes, but deliberating on these questions helped me see all the reasons why no was the right answer for me right now. I have these questions pinned by my monitors on campus and at home to prompt this much needed reflection.

In the end, learning and practicing saying no is necessary to be strategic in managing your time and commitments and achieving your professional goals. Time management is key to being efficient and productive and avoiding overextension and burnout.  Chances are you’ll enjoy your work more when you are judicious with your time. Be kind to yourself by giving the gift of allowing yourself to say no when appropriate. It’s truly a gift that keeps on giving 🙂

How do you give yourself the gift of no? 

What questions/concerns do you have about saying no?

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