“You spend the first part of your career trying to get your foot in the door. You spend the rest of it trying to get your foot out of it.”
My advisor gave me this pearl of wisdom during my first month of graduate school. At the time, it seemed farcically false. I was, after all, trying to feel out my first opportunties for research, feeling insecure about the experience and confidence that my cohort-mates brought to grad school, and wanted nothing more than to get my foot in the door.
Now I want it out.
While I’m being too flip to say I don’t welcome the opportunities that I have, one of the most frequent pieces of advice I have received is to “say no.” This simple statement has the benefit of being true, and the disadvantage of being unhelpful. It’s easy to know to say no, it’s much more difficult to do so. Having some experience saying “no” (and much more saying “yes” even when I later regretted it), I thought that I would write down some strategies that have proved helpful. I want to acknowledge that my ability to do many of these things without substantial penalties relates to the privilege I have of being a white, straight, cis-gendered man whose dad holds a Ph.D.
Know your current load of obligations. Last year, I started implementing the Getting Things Done system of organization. It has worked pretty well for me and I have managed to maintain it for almost a year with only a few relapses to my natural entropic state. I really value the GTD’s insistence on constantly updating the total list of projects I need to accomplish. Knowing what I actually have on my plate allows me to identify both the opportunities that really complement my existing workload and the opportunities that would be great but for which I do not have the time to commit while accomplishing my other goals. I use Remember the Milk to keep track of both my projects and my list of tasks within each project.
Ask for more information. Let’s say that a good opportunity comes up. In order to evaluate whether you should say yes depends on the combination of how much time, intellectual effort, and reward the opportunity will bring you. Some of these things are unknowable, but can be predicted (and your predictions will improve with experience). But simply writing back, “That sounds like such a great opportunity. Would you mind talking with me about what you see to be my involvement in this wonderful idea.” Very similar initial e-mails about joining a project involved such different commitments as leading the intellectual effort to lending my particular expertise on spatial methods on a particular part. Needless to say, the costs of committing to the second were much lower than the first.
Ask for advice. Cultivate good mentors and ask their advice. I find it helpful to have three groups of mentors: senior faculty in your own department, senior faculty in other fields at your institution, and senior faculty in your discipline at other institutions. Describe the opportunity to the person who seems most appropriate and ask for their advice. They have the benefit of being detached from the situation and having the experience (see above) to know what opportunities might be valuable and which would not.
Commit (nicely) to only parts. This one is tricky because you do not want to be a free-rider. That said, if someone invites you to join a project, then you should be able to contribute intellectually to the endeavor. If the project as a whole will go in a direction truly outside of your expertise (or desired expertise since intellectual growth is one reason to join projects), then commit to the parts on which you can and want to contribute. Offer to help on the other parts as necessary (the boring elements like proofreading manuscripts, calculating budgets, coordinating researchers), but your effort on these parts should not be disproportionate to the intellectual contribution you provide to the effort.
Set aside time for commitments. Another strategy that I have (unsuccessfully) tried involves setting aside a fixed amount of time or fixed number of obligations. For example, Fabio takes only three reviews at a time because he legitimately cannot handle more than that being on his desk and fulfilling his obligation (and you should read that post for what you should accept and decline). I have tried to set aside a fixed number of hours for non-regular service work (talking with student groups, ad hoc committees, etc.) and, once I reach that limit, sending my regrets to the organizers. I also try, in those cases, to suggest the names of others (often with an advanced heads-up to them) who might be able to or enjoy helping with the particular task.
File time bankruptcy. When all else fails — and it will fail for all but the most organized among us — do what a different advisor suggested: declare “time bankruptcy.” Suck up the terrible feelings of having to disappoint friends, colleagues, and mentors (think of the uncomfortable conversation as your penance) and tell them that you can’t fulfill the obligations to which you had committed. This should be an extreme action, but just the act of letting some projects move on will improve your ability to say no in the future. You will remember the awful feeling and taking actions to help you avoid it again in the future will be good for your future success saying “no”. And be sure to include your own projects there.
Those are some starting points that have helped me along. Please post if you find these helpful or other strategies you have found helpful so that we can all do a better job of saying “no”!