A few years ago, I called a colleague at another university to get the inside track on one of his former students who had applied to our graduate program. Our conversation went something like this…
ME: “Hi there – how are you doing?”
HE: “Good thanks, insanely busy. You?”
ME: “Yep – the same. I won’t keep you; I just wanted to ask you a quick question.”
HE: “Okay, but beware – I’m in my ‘No!’ mood today.”
I was floored… his ‘No!’ mood? I had never heard of this before but I knew exactly what he meant the minute he said it. Thankful that I hadn’t called to ask him to ‘do’ anything (other than tell me a bit about a student), I quickly concluded my business and let him go. After I hung up the phone I leaned back in my chair and stared into space, contemplating the earth shattering implications of this amazing revelation. He has a ‘No!’ mood, I thought. Absolutely brilliant, I definitely gotta get me one of those.
And so my friends – this is the message of wisdom for you today. Get yourself a ‘No!’ mood and don’t be afraid to use it. It is your armour in the never-ending battle to protect your time selfishly and to ensure that you use your time effectively. Of course you can’t say ‘No!’ to everything – but think about it for a minute… You also can’t say ‘Yes!’ to everything. That was the great revelation of this phone conversation – I realized that that was exactly what I’d been doing. I’d be a shoe-in to play Ado Annie in any production of Oklahoma! I thought, because “I’m just a girl who cain’t say no.”
To say that this had never occurred to me before wouldn’t be entirely true; there were lots of things that I had wanted to say ‘no’ to up to that point (like organizing conferences) – but I suddenly realized that there were also a lot of things that I should have said ‘no’ to, and this was where I really wasn’t being particularly discerning. I realized something else, too – in most of the cases where I should have said ‘no’, I’d said ‘yes’ because I’d been flattered to be asked. I started tallying those ones up…
- “Drive downtown and spend 2 hours in a studio for a five-minute TV clip? Oh sure – thanks!” (one day prep and 1/2 day to do it…)
- “Give a talk at a kids’ summer camp? Uh – I guess so – why not?” (one week of prep, one day of travel and the most bored group of kids I’ve ever seen…)
- “Give a talk at the society’s dinner meeting? Why yes – thanks!” (two weeks of prep and an evening away from my family…)
- “Fly to the east coast to give a one day short course? Awesome – Definitely!” (one month of prep, three days of travel and the worst case of laryngitis I’ve ever had…)
- “Fly to Siberia for 8 days to give an invited lecture? Absolutely!” (one month of prep, ten days travel and the worst scare I’ve ever had…)
In the end my list was very long – I realized I’d been spending months each year doing stuff that really wasn’t helping me to ‘get ahead’; instead these things were setting me back! We all get requests like this each year and, because they are ‘invitations’, they can be very enticing. But are they worth it? I would suggest that only the most prestigious of invitations are worth your time and effort. If they will increase your academic stature, or lead to new funding opportunities/partnerships, then they are worth it. Otherwise – consider it community-volunteer work (i.e. stuff to do in your spare time) or ‘just say no’.
My decision on that momentous day was to change my mind-set completely. Instead of automatically saying ‘yes’ to everything – from that point on, I would cultivate the habit of saying ‘no’. Whatever the request, be it collaboration, invited talk, committee position, or TV interview – if it didn’t lead to a journal paper, an increase in my stature, or funding for research that I was dying to do – then I would ‘just say no’.
The first ‘no’ was tough – my voice trembled and my hands shook. I felt like I was lying. I felt like I was being a jerk. I felt so selfish. Then I realized that they were not surprised. I realized they’d been expecting me to say ‘no’. I realized that they didn’t even seem to mind that I’d said no. I felt emancipated! Since then, each ‘no’ that I’ve uttered has been even easier to deliver than the previous one. It was the best darn decision I ever made. You should try it – really!