Have you ever been told “You need to get better at saying no?”
Or maybe the ubiquity of that kind of advice means you’ve told yourself that before anyone else had to. It might be true. We could all get better at that. But it is also much more complicated than the ubiquity of the question implies.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this, I want to address some issues that are largely a distraction. The first is the implication that your workload is objectively reasonable and the problem is with you. You are not broken. You do not need fixing. Getting better at saying no will not reduce the amount of work you do by much. It will rebalance what kinds of things make up that work. It will also help you feel more in control of your work. Even a 5-10% improvement is worth having.
There is also a tendency to focus on things like email or meetings as the main source of the problem. You probably have objectively too much email. You probably get invited to objectively too many meetings. The problem here is one of mistaking the form for the content. Both email and meetings are methods of communication. In both cases, you are facing the same problem just at a different scale. The issue isn’t email, or meetings, in general. It’s being able to distinguish the important and useful from the other stuff.
I’ve written about reframing email as a mode of communication in “Email is not a task”. There is another Spotlight on Email Overwhelm with ideas for managing email from that perspective. I’ve written about reframing meetings similarly in “Are meetings a waste of time?”.
This spotlight focuses on:
- why that’s difficult to say no,
- why you might want to do it anyway,
- how to do it, in general and in specific situations
Why saying no is difficult.
The big reason this is difficult is power and hierarchy. The risks are not the same for everyone. Some of the factors are structural and systemic, and some are personal and interpersonal. You need to assess the specific risks in each situation and make a decision.
Do not assume that you can’t say no. You may decide you want to stretch your risk tolerance beyond your comfort zone, but that doesn’t mean you need to feel bad if you are still cautious in comparison to others. I’ve written a post about confidence tricks which links to more things that may help you with this.
Another larger issue is the level of autonomy that you have over your work.
Academic freedom and a high level of autonomy over your workload is a double-edged sword. In “Guilt is complicated”, I address the problem of unclear expectations, and the difficulty of determining how your personal priorities fit with institutional priorities. This can be particularly complicated if you are a member of an equity-seeking group being asked to participate in activities that are ostensibly about improving equity and access. (see for example, Tricia Matthew (ed) Written/Unwritten: The Hidden Truths of Tenure (2016) UNC Press.)
The personal issues that might affect you arise from your past experience, and the stories they generate about particular types of behaviour and the possible risks. You were probably rewarded for being a straight A student. That may be what enabled you to get accepted and funded to do a PhD. Habits that were developed over a couple of decades starting in childhood are really hard to break, even when you recognize that they are no longer helpful.
Furthermore you may be very committed to the idea of the university as a community of scholars, to collective governance, and doing your share. You probably have experience of individuals who have not done their share and seen how that affects the collective. You are not That Selfish Bastard. If you feel guilty about saying no, I can assure you that you are not in danger of becoming that selfish bastard either.
Why do it anyway
Lack of control is a major contributor to stress. Getting better at saying no is about having some control over your overwhelming workload. Even if you are still saying yes, knowing why you are saying yes makes a big difference to how you feel, and how stressful your work is. In particular, you want to get better at saying no so that you can prioritise the work that makes this job meaningful to you.
Research is one area of your academic work life in which you have considerable autonomy. Getting better at saying no is not just saying no to other things, to make time for research. You need to be strategic about the research opportunities, too. Saying no to research opportunities is difficult, especially early in your career, but very rewarding.
Of course, sometimes you have very little choice about saying no to more things and overwork. Burnout is real. I remember internal university communications over 20 years ago about the impact of stress on mental health and the need for institutions to consider stress and mental health in health and safety policy. Structural changes in higher education since then have only made the problem worse. The situation has further deteriorated in response to the COVID pandemic.
Like planting trees, the best time to get better at saying no is probably years ago. The next best time is now. If you are so tired you could cry (or are crying more than usual, inexplicably, etc), that’s a sign. In “Activate Low Power Mode” I extend the list of possibilities for things you could stop doing.
Saying no isn’t exactly like planting trees though. If there are things you have committed to that you now realise you probably should have said no to, it may not be too late. Trust that your past decision was reasonable based on the information available to you at the time about the opportunity, the risks, and whatnot. You do not need to revisit the original decision. However, you can reconsider this commitment and make a new decision to recommit, adjust the terms of your commitment, or uncommit.
At the very least, say no to the guilt about saying no. You have better things to do with your time, and your emotional and cognitive capacity.
How to do it.
There is another reason you need to get good at saying no, but it falls more under the how than the why. You may have noticed that some of your colleagues don’t have to get good at saying no, because they don’t get asked to do things as often as you do. Strategic incompetence is a deliberate strategy. I don’t recommend it, but if you insist on being competent, you need to develop some other strategies.
The first step is to give yourself time to make a proper decision. The next step is to assume that your default answer is no. Do both of these even when you are excited about the request and know you want to say yes. Your workload is objectively too much. Even if you are going to say yes, you need time to figure out what you need to adjust to do whatever-it-is well. The time will not magically appear.
Another important general consideration is how to communicate your decision. Do not over-explain. This is not, in fact, nicer or more polite. Not only does explanation often result in pressure to change your decision, it can also cause harm that a simple “no” would not. Most of the linked pieces in this Spotlight provide sample wording for brief and kind responses.
Making a bigger decision to guide smaller ones
Decisions require time and cognitive energy. One thing you can say no to is how much time and energy you use to make decisions. Making a big decision about a specific category of opportunity both reduces the time and energy needed to respond to specific requests, and makes it easier to respond when those specific requests and opportunities arise. Loleen Berdahl calls this strategy “Decide Once”, and provides some additional tips.
Making the decision in general, and creating a template response or communicating before being asked, reduces the difficulty somewhat. In this situation, you don’t need to ask for the buffer time because you are not going to consider this “no” carefully. You have already made the decision in general.
One type of request you can do this for is peer review. You can also use this strategy to anticipate service or administrative requests and be more strategic about which tasks of academic citizenship you take on. This is also the basis of my advice about saying no to interruptions.
There are times when you will want to make a blanket decision to say no to either all requests, or all requests of a particular type. In other words, your default response of “no” isn’t just a decision making device, it’s an actual decision. This will usually be for a defined time period, to allow you to finish some of the things you have already committed to, and make space for new opportunities.
If you are burnt out or approaching burnout, this is where you need to start.
Stop making the situation worse so you can regain enough cognitive capacity to start making it better.
Being clearer about your “yes”
The strategies of making “no” your default answer when considering opportunities, and making bigger decisions to guide your smaller ones, aren’t just about saying “no” more. The real benefit of these two strategies is that they help you get clearer about what you actually want to say “yes” to, and why.
One area where this can be effective is in limiting the amount of teaching preparation and other teaching related work that you do. You may not even have considered this under “saying no” because you do need to prepare teaching, provide feedback to students, and be available to answer questions outside of scheduled class time. It feels like you are saying no to the students, or to your own commitment to being a good teacher. By getting clear about what you mean by “being a good teacher”, what you want students to learn, and how feedback will help them, you can limit the time and energy you spend on teaching related activities – without compromising your values or the quality of your teaching.
Research opportunities are another area where your strategy is more about being strategic about what you say yes to, than it is about “getting better at saying no”. In early career, the main hurdle you face is your own confidence in your research direction and ability to publish the work you most want to do. Later in your career, you may face the challenge of saying no to things that you could do well, but are no longer your priority.
In this area, it may be appropriate to suggest an alternate when you say no. Doing so might even be part of your mentoring practice. It’s never required, even if requested explicitly, and you don’t want to delay your reply (or risk forgetting to reply) to think of suggestions, but it can be helpful in some situations.
Reconsidering existing commitments
I suggested earlier that it may not be too late to say no to things that you originally said yes to. This is particularly true if you did not allow yourself time to make the decision properly in the first place, and a relatively short period of time has passed. If you made a decision in a corridor, you can change your mind after proper consideration in your office. The sooner you do this the better.
I do not recommend that you make a habit of second-guessing your decisions. However, a lot of your projects are big. They take a lot of work over a relatively long period of time. Things can change during that time period. You make decisions about individual opportunities in situations where the other options are not immediately apparent. You also say yes to things that might not actually happen: the grant may not be funded; the editor may not secure a publisher for the proposed volume. If you assumed some of them wouldn’t happen and then they all do, you might have to make some tough decisions about whether and how you will contribute.
You can trust that your initial decision was the best decision you could make at the time, and decide to revisit the decision in the light of new information. Quitting isn’t failure. It is also not your only choice. You can decide to limit the extent of your participation, change when and how you will participate, and so on. Loleen Berdahl has written a useful post about how to make this kind of decision, using the framework provided by the popular country song The Gambler. I agree with her that your default position for something you’ve been involved with for a while, and have already done some of the work for, is to find a way to keep the commitment.
I also recommend the discussion between Tim Ferriss and Amanda Palmer, “Fear of Saying No”. Their context is artistic projects, but the principles are applicable to your situation – perhaps especially in relation to research. I have not read any of Ferriss’s work. This podcast episode is a discussion between peers about an issue they both face.
You can do this!
The combination of work that is meaningful to you, and having a high level of autonomy can lead to pressure to just do more and more. Some of that pressure is external, but it is amplified by your own desire to do many of the things being asked of you as well as your own high standards.
Getting better at saying no is really about making sure you have the time and energy to do the things you say yes to well.