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When You’re Right to Refuse

Given a choice between being busy or bored, many of my colleagues would, I’m sure, choose busy. Certainly, most of us in faculty roles or in combined faculty/administrative roles have more experience with the former, and except on really bad days, we’d be reluctant to give up many of the things we do. We love teaching, mentoring, research, community service, and maybe even sitting on some of those university committees, so we probably say yes more often than no. But when saying yes gets in the way of our productivity or satisfaction (or even sanity!), saying no becomes important.

Taking a cue from the principles outlined in Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury, when someone asks me to take on a new assignment or task, I consider the following key questions first:

Do I have the time? It’s important to develop the ability to estimate how much time a given task will really take. It’s taken me years to get better at this, unfortunately, and I’ve seen many young faculty fail in this regard. I advise my junior mentees to keep in mind that, like objects in a rear-view mirror, deadlines on a calendar may be closer than they seem. I also encourage them to consider how much time they think a task will take — and then double that estimate. Even if the answer is, “I can probably squeeze it in,” does that mean another task will get squeezed out? If so, then prioritizing is the next skill on which we must rely.

Does this align with my goals? Some of you may be familiar with the Eisenhower Matrix — that 2-by-2 matrix of urgent/not urgent, important/not important. Activities that fall in the urgent/important quadrant are the critical activities of our work and lives; activities in the not urgent/not important quadrant are distractions that should be minimized. Whenever a request comes my way, I ask myself: In which quadrant does it reside? Then I consider whether agreeing to this new request will substantially affect the amount of time I can give to more urgent and important tasks. This exercise can help you decide how well the request aligns with your priorities (and your job’s priorities).

Is this something someone else can (or should) do? One insight that helped me learn to say no to some requests was the realization that sometimes, by saying no, I could open up a new opportunity for a colleague. When someone asks me to do something that isn’t high on my list, that doesn’t mean it’s not high on their list, and as a colleague I want to help them figure out how to get it done. Whenever possible, I try not to refuse a request without identifying another person who might be able to help. Perhaps I know someone who has the skill to do the task and is looking for an opportunity to contribute more. Or perhaps I am working with a mentee who wants a chance to develop skills in that area. The idea, of course, is not to pass the buck; rather think of it as a referral process that’s more useful and productive for everyone involved.

What strategies do you use to determine when and how to say no?

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