Should You Say Yes Or No?

tangled wireDo you ever find yourself looking at your calendar of upcoming events and wondering why you ever agreed to do one of them?

Whether it’s a professional obligation, a service commitment, or a social event, many of us say yes without really taking the time to evaluate whether that’s the right response.

Too Many Commitments, Not Enough Time

If you say yes to everything, you’ll very quickly become overwhelmed. This is true for anyone, but many academics struggle with this for two main reasons:

Some parts of your schedule are flexible and some are not. Classes or meetings that are held at set times are firm commitments that can’t be modified. But other research and service obligations may have more flexibility, which can actually be harder to allot time for.

Many academic commitments are hidden or variable. In addition to balancing research, teaching, and service commitments that are more or less predictable for a given semester, many faculty are asked to take on other kinds of tasks that blur the boundaries between those categories. Writing letters of recommendation for students applying to graduate school, for example, can be seen as both a teaching responsibility and a service to the larger profession. Reviewing manuscripts for a press or journal, or serving as an external tenure reviewer, are professional obligations that many faculty gladly take on, but one rarely gets much lead time to plan where that work will fit into one’s schedule.

Why Do We Say Yes Too Often?

We care. Most of the over-committed academics I know are passionate about their teaching, invested in their research, and care deeply about the workings of their institutions. But if you’re over-committed then you can’t really give your best to things and people that are important to you.

We don’t have a clear sense of our prior commitments and priorities. If you don’t have a handle on all of your existing commitments — whether that’s blocking off writing time in your calendar each week or coordinating your schedule with that of your family members — you can’t possibly know whether you have room in your already busy life for something else.

It’s often easier to say yes. If you’re someone who wants to be collegial, agreeable, and well-liked, it’s easy to want to say yes. If you’re in a quasi-social situation, or in a group, you may feel that it’s often easier to just say yes to something. If you’re in a hurry, it’s easier to just say yes without really thinking a commitment through.

Some Questions to Consider

If you’re concerned that you’re saying yes to too many things, or to not enough of the right things, then a structured method for evaluating the next opportunity or invitation that comes your way might help. Here’s a checklist of questions to get you started:

  • What would be the benefit of doing this?
  • Who would I meet or connect with through doing this?
  • What would I learn from doing this?
  • What experience would I gain from doing this?
  • What would I have to give up to do this?
  • What would be the consequence of not doing this?

Changing your Yes Habit

The most important thing you can do to ease your habit of over-committing is to institute a 24-hour waiting policy on any invitations or commitment decisions. Very few things have to be decided on right then and there, and once you’ve said yes to something, it’s much harder to back out of it if you change your mind.

If saying yes is your default pattern, you may need to practice saying something different. Here are two scripts you can use:

That sounds really interesting. Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you tomorrow with my decision.

That sounds really interesting. Let me check something and I’ll get back to you in a day or so with my decision.

If you’re feeling pressured to make a decision right away, I recommend the second script. “Let me check something”  reminds you and the other person that you have other commitments and/or people in your life you are responsible towards.

Then, use a few minutes of that 24 hour time to go through the checklist and evaluate whether this invitation or obligation is really something you want or need to do.

Are you over-committed? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user Peter Zoon]

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