Learning to Say No

Ellen Mayock reviews how to set priorities, and how that should lead you to reject most -- but not all -- service requests.

March 13, 2015

I should be the last person to write this piece and the first person to read it. I have spent decades saying yes to requests by students, colleagues and administrators and am only now learning how no feels as it whistles through the tongue and teeth. And it feels pretty good -- sometimes liberating, sometimes reassuring and very often necessary.

Somehow, we spend our toddler years exercising the right to say no, and then we forget those formative lessons in our academic professional lives. How many of us say yes reflexively and without reflection? A colleague has a great idea for a visiting scholar, and you’re suddenly organizing the whole visit. A coworker wants to start a new mentoring program for students, and you’re the first one to sign on. An old friend from grad school wants you to coedit a volume with her, and you’re in. A student wants you to write a letter of recommendation due in three days, and you hear yourself agreeing to do it. No time flat, no reflection, everything’s a grand idea, everything’s urgent, and you’ve signed up.

Even if you’re not so impulsive, you probably find yourself committing to more than you need or want to. Our colleges and universities tend to hire individuals who have always been busy and who are naturally curious about the world around them. This means that we and the people around us tend to ramp up the activity, figuring that everything can be fit in around the schedule of teaching, office hours, advising, committee work and research. At a certain point -- maybe it’s the breaking point -- we realize that something has got to give.

Follow these steps to figure out your priorities, accept the responsibilities that mesh best with your teaching and research, and reject the offers, invitations and coaxing that have little to do with your principal work.

Use your e-mail calendar function to your advantage.

Learning to say no is as much about time management as it is about work-life balance. 

Block off time for classes, office hours and standing committee meetings. Also block off time for class preparation, grading and research. Don’t schedule advising or committee meetings during this time. I have been teaching for almost three decades, and I have finally learned to respect the time reserved for “the rest of my job” (research, writing and consulting). Once you get in the habit of respecting this reserved time, all the pieces of your work puzzle fit together better. And then you really have to use that reserved time for the stated purpose!

Make a list of priorities.

Keep a long-term list of goals, which can include big and small research projects, preparation for new teaching assignments, and learning new technologies. Get these projects onto your calendar over the span of time you need to complete them, with small blocks of time devoted to the project each week. You’ll start to see projects in smaller, more manageable chunks, and this will allow you the mental space to get the work done and also to figure out when and to whom you need to say no.

Assess potential service roles and tasks.

If you are keenly interested in a research project that has you crunching numbers on salary equity, then you might well want to align the project with service to the AAUP.  If you are a creative writer and students ask you to advise their creative writing magazine, you might find the work to be rewarding for the students and for you, as you articulate your creative work in new and different ways. Before you say yes, make sure you have defined for yourself the nature of the new task or project, its potential duration and your intellectual and emotional commitment to it.

On the other hand, if you are not interested in statistics or creative writing, and service opportunities related to one of these areas come your way, you might find this to be the exact moment to start exercising your mouth muscles to say no.

Wait one day or one week to respond to requests.

It has taken years, but I have finally learned to set limits to protect my time. I do not write letters of recommendation without 7 to 10 days’ notice. I insist that students send me their résumés and project descriptions to orient the writing of the letters. With proper notice and preparation, I can write a thoughtful, careful letter of support, and I’ve budgeted the time to do so. Let students know that 7 to 10 days is your policy, and then stick to it.

Even if someone offers you an extremely appealing post or responsibility, wait a day or two to respond. Say that you are pleased to be asked and that you will give the project some thought and be in touch in a certain number of days. This allows you to return to your calendar and list of priorities to see where a new project can or cannot fit in. If you decide to say no, it will be a reasoned response. If you decide to say yes, you will be able to do so with assurance and energy.

Stages of the career.

Contingent faculty, in particular, must learn to say no to protect their contracts, their time, their other work and their possible future job searches. While accepting additional job responsibilities can definitely be rewarding and might lead to more job security, the time of the contingent faculty member needs serious safeguarding. Follow the steps above, and pay special attention to setting priorities.

Tenure-track faculty need to figure out how the department’s and university’s priorities mesh with their own. Part of being on the tenure track is serving on smaller department and university committees in order to get to know the university and its inner workings. Ultimately, this early service will allow tenure-track faculty to know when to say no and yes later in their careers. They might figure out that they never need to be on the student affairs committee again, but that they found it very instructive and beneficial to be on the visiting speakers committee, or vice versa. Pay attention to what works, but know that it might serve well only in the short term.

Other options.

I know some college professors who simply say no by rarely responding to e-mail. I am not recommending this strategy, but I do observe that students and colleagues learn not to rely on these individuals in the short or long term, and this must certainly open up some time for them to pursue other projects. Nevertheless, I believe that a more equitable sharing of the load will come when we all assess carefully when it’s worthwhile to say yes and when to say no.

Final words.

When you consider whether to accept or reject another responsibility, keep in mind that a healthy lifestyle also includes time away from the office and the computer. If you’re type A enough to do this, you might even include social commitments on your calendar and thus see fewer available blocks for the next yes on your list.


Ellen Mayock is Ernest Williams II Professor of Spanish at Washington and Lee University. She recently coedited, with Karla Zepeda, associate professor of Spanish at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, Forging a Rewarding Career in the Humanities: Advice for Academics (Sense, 2014). 


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