It’s all well and good for people to tell you “You need to get better at saying no” but there are lots of good reasons saying no is difficult. Even the people giving you that advice aren’t very good at hearing no when it’s them asking you to do things.
The upside of the autonomy you have in academia is that your boss lets you make all your own decisions. The downside of autonomy is also that your boss lets you make all your own decisions.
I remember asking my mom for permission to go to a party when I was a teen and she’d answer “What would you like me to say?” It seemed odd at the time but this response highlights something really important about autonomy and saying no. My mom knew that sometimes you don’t want to go to things. You may not have a reason your friends would accept, or you may have trouble even articulating why you don’t want to go. In that circumstance, being able to say “My mom won’t let me.” can really help.
When you are an adult with a job, your boss can play the role of your mom in this scenario. Just as some parents don’t ask you first, some bosses don’t either, but having someone with greater authority support your decision can make a big difference to how your no is received and what consequences might follow from it.
The foundation of better decisions
The biggest problem with advice to say no more often, is that it is rarely associated with the difficult task of setting priorities. You don’t always want to say no. Sometimes you do want to say yes. Saying no to some things enables you to say yes to other things.
To make better decisions, all parties to the request need to acknowledge that good decisions require thought. Before you can say yes or no, you need to determine a few parameters
- Does this opportunity align with your priorities?
- Do you have time to do this well?
- If you need to make time to do this, what will need to be adjusted or dropped?
- What are the consequences for your relationships with colleagues of accepting or refusing this opportunity?
No matter what the request, whether you have a real choice or not, or whether your inclination is to say yes or no, making a good decision requires time and thought.
Never make a decision in a corridor!
The first step to better decisions is to always take time to make the decision. Even if you are super excited and flattered to be asked, take a deep breath and ask for time. This means that your default reply needs to become:
“I need to check my calendar and other commitments. I’ll get back to you by [specify when].”
If the request is made verbally, you can also ask them to email you details so you can consider it properly.
If the person making the request pushes you for an instant answer, remind them that they presumably want you to do this task well. You can reply within an hour if necessary.
Do this even if it doesn’t change your answer
Research shows that lack of control is a major contributor to stress. Workload matters, but control matters more. Even if you don’t feel like you are in a position to refuse requests, you will feel more in control if you give yourself time to make the decision. You are also asserting your autonomy in a small way to whoever is making the request and contributing to a culture in which everyone gets a choice, even if those choices are severely constrained.
If you feel like you have no choice, use your decision time to consider whether that is really true and whether there are any small choices you have in this situation.
- Can you influence the timeline?
- How you do it?
- Can you say yes to most of it but get the part you really don’t want to do broken off and assigned to someone else?
You can also use your decision time to work out how you will do this. Instead of just adding this extra thing to your to-do list and then feeling completely out of control of your schedule, you can look at what you are already committed to and work out what you can rearrange or drop to make time for this new task. You can figure out how much work might really be involved, and what questions you want to ask to make it easier for you to do this well.
Taking the time to make the decision can also give you an opportunity to figure out who might support you if you want to say no.
- Would taking on this new opportunity make it harder to do something else well?
- Is someone else invested in the other task?
- Would they be in a position to talk to the person making the new request to support your no?
- Did the request come in a way that colleagues would see as inappropriate?
- Would your head of department or a senior mentor intervene to get the person making the request to do it properly?
You don’t have to get better at saying no right away
There are good reasons you have taken on too many things. Yes, you are overwhelmed. It is probably reasonable for you to prioritize better and do fewer of them. It is also really daunting to do that right now.
Make your goal to get better at making decisions. Work on making “I need to consider your request and get back to you.” your default answer. Once that feels comfortable and natural, you can start working on changing the decisions themselves.
Levelling up in saying no by Tseen Koo at Research Whisperer (with a bunch of other recommended links)
How to assess shiny new ideas and invitations by Loleen Berdahl at Academia Made Easier addresses the bigger issue and includes sample text for an “I need time to think about this” response.