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Are You Disappointing the Right People?

Managing an academic career often feels like an endless set of hard choices. Do I meet with the student who is struggling, or the one who shows great promise? Should I make an appearance at the often-pointless department meeting, or could I use the time to finish my manuscript? Will anyone notice if I skip the ribbon-cutting ceremony to meet with a high-potential donor instead? With more demands than time available to meet them, we must constantly evaluate where to invest our time and energy.

Over time I have come to rely on five questions to determine when it makes sense to accept an invitation and when it’s wiser to send regrets.

1. Will this activity move me toward my long-term goals? Selfish single-mindedness can lead to a bad reputation and missed opportunities, but the most effective people I know are generally strategic about how they use their time.

2. Will this activity be energizing, or will it suck the life out of me? If a meeting is likely to lead to new ideas, a productive collaboration, a fresh way of seeing an old problem, or even a psychological mood boost, consider saying “yes.”

3. Will anyone notice or care if I am missing? This is a key question to ask yourself when standing meetings are on your calendar. Is not going an option? Is going for just part of the meeting a possibility? Can you contribute in a more meaningful way than sitting in a chair for an hour?

4. Will this be the same old conversation? Does a colleague want to have lunch again to rehash all the reasons your dean should be ousted? Does a former student keep asking for advice he never takes? If so, you might want to invest your time elsewhere.

5. Will this choice disappoint the right people? Choosing one option over another is likely to disappoint someone, so the goal is to make sure that the right party feels let down. I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when a grandmother I adored passed away two days before we were about to launch a new and high-profile academic leadership institute.

Because I was an institute organizer rather than a presenter, I could have relied on my institute co-director to be in charge and flown to Atlanta to attend my grandmother’s memorial service, but I didn’t. Instead, I decided I needed to be visible and available during the institute’s kickoff and told my family that I couldn’t make the trip. I rationalized that I was an attentive granddaughter while my grandmother was alive and convinced myself that missing the gathering was an appropriate sacrifice for an opportunity to demonstrate my professional commitment. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

That memorial service was probably the final time my extended family would ever be together, and my father was crushed by my absence. There is no question that I disappointed the wrong people, and I count this as one of my very worst decisions.

When faced with competing demands, what framework do you use to decide how to spend your time and energy?

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