Time management in research: learning to say ‘no’

I was recently chatting with an early career researcher in a colleague’s group, who had read some of the pieces on our blog about balancing different activities. He was particularly interested to hear my thoughts about saying no… So here they are.

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Saying no

There is no doubt that saying no is a particularly hard skill to learn, as the demands on one’s time tend to change over time. I am working with a fantastic career coach at the moment, and this is one of the topics we have discussed as I continue to struggle with it. That said, I have picked up several suggestions along the way, and I’ll share those with you here. So, let’s say for the sake of argument you have been asked to do something. The request could relate to travel, writing a chapter, collaborating on a project, doing some analyses, taking on a new role, running a new course, doing some additional marking… well the list is just endless isn’t it!

If your immediate response is “yes, I really want to do this, I know I have time to do it and will gain something from doing it”, then that’s fine, go away and read something else! If your response isn’t so clear, my first suggestion is not to respond immediately.

Take your time

If the request comes by email you could just leave it for a bit. Or if you feel you need to send some sort of response right away, or are asked in person, ask to come back to them because you need to think about it/talk to XYZ about it. In order to help me with decision making, I have developed a set of people I make sure I discuss certain requests with. For example, I discuss all travel-related invitations with my husband, and all requests to come and visit the Centre with our department manager. I have found that when I talk to someone else about the request it becomes much clearer to me whether I actually want to do it, or whether I am thinking I should do it. It is critical to work this out. Having done this, I can usually put most of my not-clear-yeses into one of the following categories.

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No I don’t want to do it (possibly with some concerns, but basically no)

In this instance, the only reason to do it would be because someone who has the authority to do so has said you have to. But even then, think carefully about whether they have asked or told you to do it. Even if it was the latter, it may be possible to wriggle out of it by using one of the strategies below.

“think carefully about whether they have asked or told you to do it”

No, but I feel I should

This is often the biggest problem group. You feel you should because you like/respect/owe the person that asked you, you feel flattered, you want to “do your bit”, you are known to be good at this type of task…..  BUT, if you don’t actually want to do it, then you need to say no. Keep in mind that as you progress through your career, you need to gain a variety of different experiences (research, teaching, administrative tasks etc.). If you keep saying yes to the same types of tasks, you will build too narrow a portfolio. So think, does this give me a new opportunity? If not, then take a look at the strategies below and find a way to say no.

Yes, but I don’t think I have time (right now)

If you would like to do the task, but don’t really have time, you have two choices. It works fine to say “I would like to work on this with you, but I can’t do it until next term”. I greatly respect the statistical geneticist that most often responds to me in this way, and have picked up this technique from her. However, if you don’t think you can commit the task in a reasonable time-frame, you need to say no.

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Having decided you don’t want/have time to do it, these are the two main strategies you can use in responding to the request.

Delegate it

Often there is a task that I want to know will be done well, but I realise I don’t actually need to be the person to do it. This applies even to tasks I come up with myself! In these instances I ask myself who else would have both the skills and time to do this. If there are several individuals that meet these criteria, I tend to go for the person who I think has most capacity to take on additional tasks and/or who would benefit most from it. So if it is a talk that I have been invited to give, and I would love to go but don’t have time, then I will suggest it to a senior PhD student or post-doc, for whom this would be a particular career benefit.

You can think quite broadly here, considering anyone else who could do it. So if you are relatively early in your career and have no-one to delegate to explicitly, then think of someone who you believe has the skills and capacity to do this. If you can come up with someone who might also gain something by doing it, because it is slightly more interesting than, or offers a new opportunity compared to their usual tasks, they are more likely to say yes.

 t3

“Once you’ve said no, let it go. Do not get drawn into feeling guilty.”

Be brave, just say it

This can feel a very unattractive option, but it works surprisingly well because it is open and honest. In my first post-doc position I said yes to everything my boss suggested I do, and realised that he would only stop suggesting things to me if I said “no, I have enough on now”. So one day I did, and it was fine. I find that simple, honest answers work best. “I’m so sorry, I do not have time for this”. If this seems too blunt, or you feel “I should do this”, it may be more comfortable if you give them a reason, perhaps explaining that you are already doing several similar tasks and cannot take on any more.

Once you’ve said no, let it go. Do not get drawn into feeling guilty. There will always be more people who want and need your time than you can realistically provide for. At the end of the day, almost everyone understands that and will respect you for being clear in saying no.

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