Learning how to say ‘no’

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One of the things I absolutely love about academia is that I am never bored through a lack of having anything stimulating to do. Outside of academia, I have experienced a job in which sometimes I had no appointments and no outstanding work I could do. I really struggled with this and tried to make work for myself and look like I was busy. But this felt more stressful and tiring than actually doing real work and it probably looked a bit odd when I was trying to tidy the office every single week… Fortunately, nowadays my to-do list always has a lot of really interesting things to be getting on with. Even the slightly more tedious things on there are at least satisfying to complete and tick off the list. If I ever feel like I’m at a point where I have tackled all the ‘Really Important and Urgent Things’ on my list, there is always the other half of the list, with all the ‘Things That Would Be Interesting and Useful To Do At Some Point’, or indeed the enormous pile of reading material next to my computer, which never seems to shrink much.

I love being busy, but as with all things, there is a point at which the stress flips from being motivating and positive to a bit overwhelming. Finding a balance and trying to maintain it is crucial for your mental well-being. When things start getting to be too much, it becomes clear that some things need to fall by the wayside if others things are going to get done to a good enough standard. But how do you choose what these things are and how do you say ‘no’ to the things that you’ve judged as less important?

I try to always be available to help anyone who would like my help, partly because when I first started my PhD I was always seeking other people’s advice, partly because I still do this a bit and partly because I genuinely like to help others when I am able to. When my PI asks me to help with things that aren’t directly related to my PhD, such as doing a literature review on a specific topic, giving a talk, attending a meeting, or doing an analysis on something she’s just thought of, I wouldn’t even consider saying ‘no’. But there comes a time when you realise that taking part in an hour-long monthly teleconference you never say anything at would be better spent doing something else and just reading the minutes when they come through by email.

So how do you identify the things that really will lead you off track from your PhD for too long and how do you say no to them? I’m probably not the best person to ask as I will say yes to things 99% of the time and if I don’t end up doing them it’s most likely that they are still on my to-do list and I still intend on doing them, but I was assured that they weren’t really that urgent…

A blog post from last year by Arthropod Ecology contains what seems like good advice on this subject:

“You will always be asked to do more than you can do, and at some point this can break you.  Stay somewhat selfish, and say no to things that take you too far from your career goals.  The key step to getting an academic post, and keeping it, is often research productivity, and so at the later stages of your PhD and early on in your academic position, keep focused on research and try to manage your time to keep that part of your portfolio moving forward.  I think it’s too easy to let research productivity slip when you are balancing other pressures of Academia.”

The importance of learning to say ‘no’ will probably become clearer to me the closer my PhD thesis deadline approaches and my time feels more precious. At the moment, I’m generally happy to help others out, but especially if my help is likely to result in authorship on an eventual paper or a senior person thinking favourably of my apparent positive can-do-attitude when looking for a post doc…


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