We are members of a group of mid-career environmental social scientists who have met weekly for a decade to give each other feedback on our research, which we wrote about in a previous column. Increasingly, we were bringing our work invitations and opportunities to the group, hoping that the members would serve as a ‘no committee’ that would help us decide which opportunities to reject. This led one of us to throw down the gauntlet: last May, facing pandemic and career burnout, this member whimsically suggested we make a game out of saying no by challenging ourselves to collectively decline 100 work-related requests.
Oliver Burkeman argues in his book Four Thousand Weeks (2021) that saying no is essential to create space and energy, so you can say yes to things that matter. Despite its importance, saying no wisely is a fundamental practice that many researchers (ourselves included) have not developed. Thus, we spent a year tracking and reflecting on our decisions to say no.
We logged our 100th ‘no’ in March 2022. We learnt that saying no requires more than a how-to guide. It involves rethinking priorities and empowering ourselves and our colleagues to set boundaries. We offer four insights to others seeking to align their finite energy with seemingly infinite possibilities.
Tracking helped make ‘no’ an option
There is an old adage that you manage what you measure. We often say yes by default, so tracking our decisions introduced a moment for us to pause and make a conscious choice. Two of us found the gamification motivating: saying no earned a point in our quest to reach 100. We also found ways to consistently combat our ‘yes’ reflex. One of us has a cartoon illustrating the concept of ‘JOMO’ (joy of missing out) taped above her desk. Another thinks of colleagues who more often say no, with care, as role models and consciously emulates them.
Tracking ‘no’s inspired us to record other things. We logged completed tasks to counteract impostor syndrome, kept a running count of active projects and tracked how we were spending time each day. This helped us to limit the number of projects that we took on or the hours that we spent working. We found that expressing our limits in terms of weekly or monthly rates was especially helpful (for example, setting a limit of one journal review per month, rather than 12 per year).
Say no more often and to larger asks
During our ‘year of no’, we said no far more often than ever before. For example, between us, we declined 31 invited talks — but that still wasn’t enough to prevent burnout. In total, our members delivered 43 talks and guest lectures. We declined too many little things — such as reviewing journal articles — and not enough big tasks. Consider a budgeting analogy: if rent and other fixed obligations exceed your income, saving the cost of a coffee each day might not balance your budget. Admittedly, saying no to big things can be difficult or almost impossible. We have less control over many larger time commitments, such as the number of courses we teach, than over small ones. Still, we declined leadership opportunities or the chance to help write large grant proposals. Scholars in adjunct or grant-funded positions could have even less control over their major time commitments. Working part-time, as our Australian member does, is sometimes an option — but for many in the United States, this would involve an untenable loss of benefits, such as health insurance, sick leave and family leave. Despite these constraints, we need to pay attention to large chunks of time when balancing our overall commitments.
Early in our careers, saying yes helped us to make connections and explore promising research directions. But as opportunities multiplied in our mid-careers, we needed a mindset shift, from gathering to pruning. So we need to develop clear criteria to help us choose what to pursue. Questions that have helped us to strategically evaluate opportunities to say yes included:
1. Does this opportunity fit my research agenda and identity?
2. Does it ‘spark joy’ (with a nod to Marie Kondo, doyenne of organization)?
3. Do I have time to do a good job without sacrificing existing commitments?
4. Does the opportunity leave space for my personal life?
5. Am I uniquely qualified to fill this need?
By saying no, we preserve our energy and creative capacity to do a better job on the projects, mentoring and service roles that we choose to devote our time to.
The pandemic especially drove home the need to say no. We often booked ourselves to the limit: we took on as many projects and roles as we thought we could handle. Inevitably, when one of us or a colleague got sick or had a family or student crisis, they had no bandwidth or slack in their schedule. Building in this slack is crucial to being able to handle life events.
Saying no is emotional work
Over our year of no, we routinely noted feelings of guilt. We worried that we were letting down colleagues, not doing our ‘fair share’ or failing to live up to the privilege we hold as fully employed researchers and mentors. We wanted to be kind, helpful and available, even if doing so left us personally overwhelmed. Each member struggled to turn down invitations, even in situations when she was already making a substantial contribution. For one of us, it was hard to say no to taking on another graduate student although she was already serving on six students’ committees. Another struggled to decline an early-morning presentation that conflicted with her family’s morning routine, although she was the only parent at home that week. We even found it difficult not to volunteer for service roles or shiny opportunities that we were not directly asked to take on. In myriad ways, we saw how our cultural conditioning as women, academics and public servants contributed to our difficulty with setting boundaries. Tracking not just how often we said yes or no, but also our emotional responses, made the emotional labour of saying no visible.
Advice on the logistics of how to say no is readily available. But we found that we needed less logistical advice and more emotional advice: how to overcome the idea that we ‘should’ say yes, that we owe the asker something more than a polite refusal. For example, some advice columns suggest using a ‘little no’, or agreeing to only a portion of the task, as a way to lessen the blow: for example, agreeing to review a paper rather than contribute to it, or rescheduling a talk for later in the year. We found that this tactic was a slippery slope that led people to ask for a greater commitment later on. And it sometimes left us completing the whole task if the others involved did not contribute equally. Instead, we learnt to say ‘no’ early, firmly and completely. Only a firm no truly reduced our commitments. To soften the blow, we suggested others who could complete the task, and tried to lift others’ voices by recommending colleagues and students whose views might otherwise be overlooked. Providing an authentic but succinct explanation for turning down tasks also preserved relationships with the people making the requests.
The importance of relationships emerged as a key lesson from our year of no. We now choose collaborators who respect our boundaries, personal lives and mental health, and who honour our decision to say no as an act of self-care. In return, we recognize the need to treat ‘no’s from our colleagues with grace and to make our requests of others (especially those who are junior to us) in ways that include an easy way out.
Practise makes ‘no’ easier
Just as sticking to a financial budget requires repetition to make behaviours stick, we notice that, with time and repetition, the emotional labour of justifying ‘no’ to ourselves and saying ‘no’ to others is becoming easier (especially with the mutual support of our feedback group). And when we reflect on our past year, we don’t regret our ‘no’s. When presented with opportunity, it is easy to worry about missing out or social consequences — but it turns out, at least for us, that the saying ’you only regret the things you don’t do’ doesn’t hold true.
We will continue to say no more often and to bigger tasks, and to build spaces in which others are empowered to set boundaries. This is the only way to make room for intentional ‘yes’ in our finite research lives.