Leveling up in saying ‘no’


If there’s one thing that seems to dog many academics’ lives, it’s the inability to say ‘no’.

We often find ourselves over-committed and frazzled with deadlines…and it can be a frenzy of our own making. I’m not talking here about being given inappropriate workloads or sky-high benchmarks to be met. These are larger structural and equity issues that need broader institutional change.

I’m talking about the culture of overload that is normalised, and the ways that we sometimes pile on the commitments despite knowing that we’ll regret it. We do have some control over what we take on – it can be a matter of doing some cold, hard stock taking about priorities

Once upon a time, I was a menace to my future self for taking on too much and assuming things would work out OK. They often did work out OK, but only because I had to put in extreme hours, pull overnighters, or lose several weekends in a row to get things done when there was a deadline log-jam. Now, with a household that includes two kids, an elderly parent, and my partner, as well as various furry and feathery critters, I can’t (and don’t want to) carry out this kind of work blitz any more.

To aim for balance and a good life (not just surviving), I use a few methods that I’ve been trying haphazardly over the years. They’ve now crystallised into a good set of strategies for me to manage work and enjoy life – and manage life and enjoy work (seriously – it’s true).

Here’s how I’m managing my year so far:

Proper time-blocking in my calendar for all my commitments – not just work.

I saw Raul Pacheco-Vega’s post about his scheduling technique years ago and have always remembered it. I’m not as hardcore as Raul in terms of a super-tight schedule, but I now make time in my weekly schedule for the important research things that I all-too-easily let slide when other things become more demanding (e.g. reading time!). I also block out weekends and after hours as time unavailable for work. I need to make things fit into what hours are left.

Joined the Monthly Weeklies goal-setting group

The group I’m in is run by Jonathan Williams and Tom Cho. I joined in January this year and have just started the March cycle with them. I’m getting much better with setting good, stretchy goals and it’s fantastic for tracking what I get done. Keeping my eye on the longer-term goals is half the battle sometimes when so much about life can get in the way. It’s also very good at training me to be realistic about what I want to get done so I don’t land myself in impossible/super-hectic situations. I see now how often I’ve set myself up to fail (in terms of self-set deadlines).

When thinking about a request or invitation, I’ve started putting it through a personal filtering system.

When I get a request or invitation, I ask myself this series of questions and take the subsequent actions – only if it makes it through as a ‘yes’ to all the questions do I take it on:

Q1. Do I want to do it?
No (decline politely)
Yes (move on to Q2)

Q2. Does it fit with my priorities for this year? (e.g. my priorities this year are to focus on my writing and publishing pipeline, with a lesser priority being gaining different academic experiences)
No (decline politely)
Yes (move on to Q3)

Q3. Can I fit it into my schedule without overloading commitments?
No (decline politely)
Yes (move on to Q4)

Q4. Does it add something to the experiences/expertise I’ve already got?
No (decline politely)

In addition to putting this system in place, I’ve been doing a lot of managing of expectations. For example, this year, I’ve had a note at the top of my ‘Talks and Workshops’ page since January: “Thanks for visiting this page! I’m fully booked for 2019.” Just having it there has made it easier for me to draw the line for invitations. I really wanted to cut down on travel and external workshopping this year because of my focus on writing and publishing. Those kinds of opportunities are wonderful and I have loved doing them, but they take up time both in the doing and the prep and return to a back-log. Too many of these would mean that I’m derailing my aims for the year, or voluntarily putting myself into a frenzied work-zone (and eating into my after hours and weekend time, which I want to keep dedicated to family and recharging [a.k.a. staring at a wall and not commuting]).

There are a few things I know I’m committed to this year (as I said ‘yes’ to them last year) and they are the only things I’ll be doing. There are many things I’ve declined already because they failed to make it past all questions.

I say all this not to encourage withdrawal from academic life and service. I have said before that doing what you can is extremely important and the generosity of spirit and sharing of the scholarly load makes our lives better. I hold quite a few positions, and regularly review for journals and publishers. These things shouldn’t run you into the ground – they should be positive and engaging opportunities.

I know it’s only March (OMG it’s March!), and this may still be the shiny nature of 2019, but it has given me a sense of momentum and purpose that I have had trouble cultivating in the past. I did heaps but not in particularly focused ways.

You’ll have different contexts and priorities, of course, and this combination may not work for you. Don’t worry, though, as this is an issue that has perplexed and challenged many! Here are a few other nifty posts about prioritisation and saying ‘no’ in academia that may help you find a set of strategies that will work: