One difference between an academic career and other forms of employment is that you are often left to manage your workload yourself. The basics are decided by someone else, but you are always “free” to take on more.
You have permission to decide whether to take on these obligations.
Saying “no” is hard. Are you saying yes just to avoid the discomfort?
Some of your colleagues will avoid the discomfort by avoiding being asked. I know someone whose doctoral supervisor advised him to do administrative tasks “Late with at least one mistake” to avoid being asked to do too much.
I’m not suggesting you do that. But the alternative is learning how to say no confidently. This is especially important if you have a reputation for doing things well. Or if getting you on a committee meets a diversity requirement.
Managing your own workload.
You need guidance (probably from your head of department) about what a reasonable service/admin workload is for someone at your level. The fact that they are happy for you to take on more is irrelevant. Figure out what the expectations are.
Now you need some principles to apply in specific cases.
First, think about your strengths.
- What kinds of tasks are you good at?
- What issues do you care a lot about (or know a lot about)?
- What working environments do you work best in?
Then think about what you need. Service and administrative tasks are good ways to build networks and learn things you need to know.
- Would it be a good idea for you to serve on a faculty-wide committee as a way of building a network beyond your department?
- Are there people within your department that you would like to get to know better?
- Would serving on this committee give you more in depth knowledge of how a particular process works?
Also note your weaknesses. Your weakness will be someone else’s strength. You need to avoid doing them in favour of tasks that play to your strengths.
Now think about balance. Try to ensure that taken together, all of your service/administrative tasks meet a range of needs, and take different kinds of contributions. You might even want to seek out particular kinds of tasks to develop your network, or gain useful experience, or whatever.
Talking with your head of department about your interest in particular kinds of tasks can be helpful. That way, you are more likely to get asked to do things that play to your strengths. Whatever you do make sure your head of department knows about all the commitments you have taken on. The last thing you need is to be perceived to be doing less than you are.
You don’t need a reason.
When responding to a specific request, aim for brevity. Most of the time it is fine to say “I’m sorry but I can’t take on any more responsibilities at this time.” That’s it.
I understand that compulsion to explain. But I’ve discovered that trying to explain usually causes more problems. Once you offer reasons, the person doing the asking may work harder to persuade you, making it even harder to stick to your no. Or, the reasons may damage the relationship in ways that a simple refusal might not have.
Keep in mind that the person doing the asking is probably expecting a lot of refusals. Just think of the last time you had to ask someone to do something? Did you expect the first person you asked to say yes? Did you expect a “good reason“? Did you get one?
You are not alone.
Sometimes, there are more things you care a lot about and could make a strong contribution to than it would be reasonable for you to take on. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you don’t do a particular task it won’t get done (or done properly). This way lies overwhelm and burnout.
Even if that were true, you can’t do it well if you have too much on your plate. And you can’t make a lasting contribution if you don’t get tenure. Taking on too much and then losing your job or ending up on disability with a stress-related illness is not helping anyone.
You are part of a large organization. There are many people who could be contributing. Although it is hard to accept, sometimes the fact that no one else will do it, means that it is not considered an institutional priority. You won’t get any recognition if you step up. And you certainly won’t get any compensation for having taken on “extra” work.
Introducing That Selfish Bastard (spoiler alert: it’s not you!)
Edited Nov 13, 2015, related posts updated 2 July 2018. Added to Saying No Spotlight, March 2022.