We all know the importance of saying "no." We've heard it time and time again, from our professors, mentors, and colleagues, and yet many of us still find it hard to do. Why does this happen? We're smart people, right? Why is it so hard to put into action what we know will work for us?
In part, it's because the irregularity of our schedules makes it difficult to know how much time we actually have available. But I think there's another reason academics find saying "no" so hard. We’re programmed to please. We were the "good kids," most of us, the students at the top of the class. We were taught that being offered a responsibility was a good thing. When people ask us to do something, they affirm our sense of self-worth, particularly when they say something like "we thought you'd be good for this."
Be careful when you hear that phrase! Make sure that you pause and evaluate the request, no matter how thrilling this praise may be, or how exciting you think the requested task might be. Be wary of saying yes -- even if you feel pressured. Make sure that you pause and evaluate the request, no matter how exciting you think it might be. It’s important to be proactive and to plan even before the next request comes.
If you find flattery particularly difficult to resist, these next tips may help.
1) Above all else, don’t drain your battery. You are no good to yourself, to your colleagues, or to your students if you’re not functioning on all cylinders (sorry about the mixed car metaphors). Protect your energy level and your brain cells from overload.
2) Realize that the person praising you knows the effect that flattery can have. That doesn’t mean that people who praise you are manipulative. They might just have good social skills and know unconsciously that flattery gets you everywhere. If you keep this in mind, you may be able to stay more objective.
3) Schedule your writing time before you schedule everything else. Before the term begins, write in your teaching schedule and any other regular commitments. Identify the times you will have available for writing and schedule them now. Once you see how little discretionary time you have, it will be easier not to give it away.
4) Never say yes immediately. Unless you're being asked to give a TED talk or do something that you've always wanted to do, don't automatically say yes. Let your default answers be "no" and "I'll think about it." If you give yourself time to think and look at your schedule, you'll likely realize that whatever you're being asked to do just won't fit. If that's the case, don't try to squeeze it in -- you'll just do everything else less well.
5) Ask yourself; "Do I really want to do this? Why? Is it really critical to my career?" Don’t just say yes to please someone. Don’t just say yes because you get a buzz from the recognition. If you're not sure whether the obligation is critical, confer with a trusted colleague. Chances are, your colleague will talk you out of it!
As the summer winds down and you look toward the new academic year, think deeply about your commitments. Remember that every time you say "yes," you're saying "no" to something else. Be realistic about your time and what you can reasonably offer. Don’t let flattery drain your battery.