I'm a man who just can't say 'no'

June 23, 2006

The constantly harried Kevin Fong gets to grips with a very modern affliction

This week, I started a new job, worked 60 hours in an intensive care unit, chaired a few sessions at a conference on extreme environment medicine I had organised, gave a lecture about astronauts to 300 school kids at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, did a podcast, submitted the final version of a 1,500-word editorial about last year's London bombings, wrote two posters for an international conference and fired them off to the printers in the middle of the night ready to be couriered to the hospital in the morning.

I am now on a plane on my way to South Africa, cruising at 10,500m and tapping furiously at my laptop keyboard, hoping to get this column written before a) the plane starts its descent into Johannesburg or b) the laptop's battery runs out. The problem with being me is that I spend my life saying "yes" when what I really mean is: "Leave me alone, can't you see I'm about to die of sleep deprivation."

Not being able to say "no" used to be a much more benign affliction. In the days before e-mail and mobile phones, before perversions such as shops with staff who exist only to print and deliver your posters to you in the middle of the night, you just weren't able to live at this ridiculous pace. It used to be that people had trouble tracking you down out of hours and, once you had left the office, only a tiny cadre of friends and relatives had access to your sacred home phone number. If you took a holiday, no one could get hold of you without much determination and a little inside information.

So I'm founding a new martial art to help us deal with this problem of modern living. It's called "Nah Uh". The way of the "No Way". It focuses on balancing your inner chi by teaching you how to fend off unwanted requests and invitations.

First, disable the voice mail on your mobile phone. Next, turn the phone off and leave it off. This can be hard, but start gently and work up to as many hours a day as you can. Remember, if they can't speak to you, you can't speak to them.

Now the e-mail inbox. When you're away, set up the auto-reply to tell people you're away, uncontactable and unwilling to contemplate proposals until you return. This converts a potential vulnerability into a strong electronic defence. The advanced student might want to set the auto-reply to say they're away when they're not, but this is really for much later in your training.

Finally, the most difficult feat in Nah Uh. Having kept all but the most determined attacker at arm's length with the measures already outlined, you must become proficient in close-quarters combat because sooner or later someone is going to track you down, knock on your door and take you on.

Start by facing your opponent, maintaining eye contact all the while. Hold up your hands with palms outwards and say "no". This works even if they haven't had a chance to ask you for anything yet. If they look like they're still coming, resist the urge to resort to violence, which is highly effective but deeply unfashionable. Instead, keep repeating the word "no", increasing volume and frequency as appropriate. Don't be fooled by commonly used Jedi mind tricks such as "It's only one lecture" or "It'll only take a couple of minutes". Learn to just say "no", my Nah Uh novice, and you will live long and prosper.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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