Do yourself a favour – learn to say ‘no’

It can be hard to refuse a request, but scholars must do so for the sake of their well-being. Helen Kara offers advice

June 3, 2016
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People in our line of work, whether academic or altac, are often at serious risk of overcommitment. This can happen for a number of reasons, including disorganisation, pressure from other people and the inability to say “no”.

Disorganisation often results from the best intentions, lack of foresight or planning, unrealistic expectations and inability to understand how long different jobs actually take. It can be truly difficult to figure out how long it will take to do a given piece of work but a useful strategy is to make your best guess then add 50 per cent. So if you think you could definitely get an article written in six weeks, tell anyone who needs to know that it will take you nine weeks.

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One way to keep your expectations realistic is to take care to factor in all your existing commitments – which, don’t forget, include your social life and holidays as well as work. Also, remember that the empty spaces in your calendar in the months to come will fill up as the dates come closer. People often say to me things like, “I’m really busy this month and next, but I’ll have lots more time after that.” I think, “No you won’t, you poor deluded fool, because by the time you get there ‘the month after next’ will be ‘this month’ and you’ll be just as busy as ever.”

People often overcommit from the best intentions. They want to help, or they are being offered interesting projects, and they think they’ll find a way to get it done. Often they do find a way, but that can be at the expense of their happiness, their relationships and their health. I know, personally, two senior academics who have been reduced to taking sizeable portions of sick leave owing to overcommitment in the past year alone. Part of this is because of the structure of academia and the ever-increasing demands placed on its staff. The only real solution to that is collective action. Yet, without wanting to sound all neoliberal, there is also scope – and, I would argue, responsibility – for individual action in the interests of protecting our own well-being.

Some people seem completely unable to see what is around the corner. One fairly senior academic I know moved from a research job to a teaching job, and was then astonished to discover that time-consuming preparation and marking were required. Another, a parent of two young children, seems continually surprised by the need to provide care for them. Perhaps overcommitment breeds overcommitment because, when you’re currently overcommitted, it’s hard to find the time to give proper thought to potential future commitments and their likely implications. But finding that time is the only way to escape the overcommitment trap. And the only way to find that time is to learn to say “no”.

Saying “no” can be really difficult, particularly if the person asking is, for example, senior to you, or someone to whom you owe a favour. As Deborah Netolicky pointed out on Twitter after this post was first published on Helen Kara’s blog, this can be even harder for newly qualified and early career academics, desperate to build networks and a reputation, who may fear that an offer of work will not be repeated. So, to begin with, try learning not to say “yes” immediately. Say something like, “That’s a really interesting proposition. Can I think about it and get back to you? I need to check my other commitments before I can give you a firm answer.” Then if you decide you don’t want to say “yes”, you can say, for example, “I’d love to help but right now I don’t have the time to do the work well, and I don’t want to do a bad job for you.” Jenny Delasalle from Piirus has some great ideas for other ways to say “no”.

When you owe a favour, even this can feel very difficult. It can help simply to acknowledge that you owe a favour. “I know you did X for me, and I am still very grateful. I do want to return the favour but I’m afraid it’s a really difficult time for me right now, as I am already fully committed for the next few months. Is there some other way I can pay you back?” Being upfront like this can feel scary for some people, but it is a great way to diffuse the anxiety that unspoken worries can create, and therefore it is worth the effort.

Read more: The difficulty of saying 'no' as an ECR

The wider pressure to “be collegial” is another difficulty faced by those working in academia, whether from inside or outside institutions. For example, I recognise that I can’t expect people to peer-review my articles without offering to peer-review the articles of others. However, I can decide how many articles I am able and willing to review, per month or semester or year. Given that there is a need to review articles that are not and never will be fit for publication, as well as those that are or could be publishable, I might decide to review two articles for every article I submit. Or I might decide I can manage one per month, or two per semester, regardless of how many I write myself. The number you can manage will, of course, depend on your other commitments, but the basic principle is the same. You need to think the whole thing through, make a decision, then stick to that decision – and explain it to people where necessary. The same could apply with other regular one-off tasks such as examining theses, reviewing book proposals or typescripts, writing forewords and so on. You have the right to set a limit on any such task you’re being asked to do more often than you can comfortably manage – and to enforce that limit.

There is an ethical point to this, too. We forget to notice that if we don’t look after ourselves properly, we can’t do our jobs or look after other people. I love Deborah Netolicky’s memorable description of ethics as the “unsexy undergarments” of academia. I think we should pay attention to ethics all the time, just as we remember, every day, to wear our undergarments. People who overcommit are a danger to themselves, risking their health and happiness, and that can damage their families and friends as well. They are also a danger to their colleagues: I know from experience, as someone who is quite good at managing time and workload, that a collaborator who misses deadlines can cause great stress in my life. So for our own benefit, and for the benefit of our colleagues, families and friends, we have an obligation not to overcommit, and that means learning to say “no”.

Helen Kara has been an independent researcher since 1999 and now works closely with academia. She is a visiting fellow at the UK National Centre for Research Methods and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. This post originally appeared on her blog.

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