It’s been about nine months since my Year of No started, in May 2019, and I thought it was time to review progress.
In fact, my intention had been to review progress at the half-way point – around November 2019. The fact that this blog is coming three months behind schedule probably tells you a lot about how my Year of No has been going… or does it? This blog is a chance for me to sit back and evaluate how things have gone, what have been the successes and the failures, and what have I learned from the process. I haven’t had much time to do this – though I have saved most of my No emails in one place at least – so I’m fascinated to see what this blog shows me and I hope you’re a little bit curious too.
What have I said no to?
This is the easiest question to answer. There are 67 emails in my “radical no” email folder, which amounts to just under two things per week that I’ve declined, politely. A quick scan shows quite a lot of invitations to talks, including a couple of international keynotes. Those were simultaneously easy and difficult to turn down. Easy, because it is a pleasure to nominate an alternative speaker from amongst my many wonderful colleagues and collaborators, plus I normally don’t feel a sense of personal responsibility to the person inviting me. Difficult because in October 2019 I submitted an application for promotion and it felt rather foolish to be trying to persuade the promotions panel of my marvelousness, just at the point when I had a bit of a gap in the evidence base for that.
There’s also a handful of viva examining opportunities. Turning those down will have made a huge difference to my time – reading a thesis thoroughly takes at least 15 solid hours, I’d say, and that normally happens in over 2-4 weeks, in one or two-hour blocks in evenings and at weekends. I’m glad not to have had all those to do. On the other hand, viva requests often come from close colleagues – many are also friends – which was tough. It felt harsh to be prioritising my work life balance over making a contribution at such a huge milestone in the life of an early career research, and supporting their supervisor at the same time. I may reap the whirlwind later this year – I expect to have six students viva-ing in 2020! That’s a lot of examiners I need to ask to do what I have just been turning down…
What else? Membership of a couple of interdisciplinary networks or study advisory boards. A contribution to a conference symposium proposal. A bunch of media requests. And a couple of book reviews. Oh, and an invitation to write a book – that one was super easy to turn down because my book with Francesca Happé had only been published six months earlier and I’m definitely not ready to write another one!
How have people reacted?
This has been one of the really huge successes of the year – people have been soooo nice and understanding. I’ve really been knocked out by their generous replies, saying how they get what I’m doing, they recognise the challenges, even that they intend to do their own “Year of No”. No-one that I’ve said No to has made me feel bad for turning them down, not even a mildly reproachful or passive-aggressive line in their reply. This seems a good moment to say a massive thank you to everyone for these reactions. It means a huge amount to me to have had such a positive reception.
In fact, in the past nine months I’ve encountered only one mildly critical response – a chap who read my blog (I didn’t even say No to him!) and observed that all the best things in his life had come from saying Yes. Noted. But of course, it’s protecting those previous Yes-es that motivates me to say No now. So, people of the world, it seems you have nothing to fear from your own Radical No project. If you’ve been unsure whether to give it go, this is your call to action!
There are two other kinds of reactions though, that are worth mentioning. One is that students who contact me out of the blue – normally to ask for advice on a project – tend not to bother replying when I decline. There’s a bigger conversation here about how to approach someone out of the blue to ask for advice (a topic for a future blog, but in a nutshell – don’t ask for help with something you are capable of doing yourself, such as finding relevant literature; show you have gathered some good foundational knowledge first; come with a targeted question that is demonstrably legitimate – i.e. couldn’t be easily resolved any other way). But if you do approach someone and they politely decline, it seems to me that failing to send an understanding acknowledgement misses an opportunity to build a longer-term connection with a potential future colleague.
The second is the people who have told me that they’re not even asking me to do stuff in the first place, because they have read about the Noes. Aaaargh! Do they have any idea how catastrophic that is for my academic ego?! But seriously – please do continue to ask. It is nice to be considered for things even if we both know I have to turn them down. I might be able to recommend an alternative person, and I certainly enjoy hearing what you’re up to.
What have I said yes to?
It seems important to confess at this stage that there are some things I have said yes to. A couple of these were outright against the rules. I agreed to co-author a paper with Duncan Astle because… well, he’s brilliant and I knew it would be more privilege than chore. I agreed to support a new student to seek PhD funding to study with me, because they have an amazing track record, great ideas, and they are themselves neurodivergent. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to help increase the capacity for neurodivergent research leadership in this way. And finally, I agreed to do one PhD viva because the student’s work is just so clearly in my ballpark and I want them to have a really constructive and positive viva experience.
As well as these cheats, the original rules of the project permitted “extensions of existing collaborations” and it turns out that this gives me a lot of flexibility – perhaps too much. On this basis, I have agreed to sit on the advisory group for a study just because I chatted to the lead researcher about it in a pub a few weeks before the Year of No began. I’ve agreed to be a co-applicant on a new grant proposal because I have the most tenuous of pre-existing links with the primary applicants. And I’ve supported a former MSc project student to apply for PhD funding, because he was my student and I really enjoyed supervising his excellent work. While these Yes-es were allowed on a technicality, ultimately the reason to say Yes was because the work was exciting and I was thrilled to be involved.
And this is the same reason I say Yes to anything, and the reason I got into this mess in the first place. In other words, I haven’t changed as much as I’d have liked!
Is it working?
I had hoped to achieve a few things during my Year of No. One was better work / life balance. Another was clearing a backlog of tasks which had been left incomplete. It doesn’t take a genius to spot that these two goals are somewhat at odds with each other. And indeed, my experience has been that most of the time rescued by saying No has been instantly absorbed by the extra work of clearing the backlog. In the past nine months I have managed to archive some old data sets, update our team’s lab manual, migrate the former ASDTech website to a new location, and start (but not finish) writing a paper that I first planned in April 2017.
This list might not sound much of an achievement, but this year has also coincided with an exceptionally busy time at work – with a handful of students all completing their PhDs (which means a lot of thesis commenting), an Athena Swan submission due in April 2020, and new responsibilities as Director of the Salvesen Mindroom Research Centre. It’s a relief to have some time to lean in to that role, and at the same to have finally crossed some items off the “important but not urgent” list.
One big benefit has been the fact that it is strikingly easier to find time in my calendar than it used to be. I can see students at shorter notice and handle issues that come in a little more swiftly. It’s not perfect – January has been disastrous – but I notice it and I hope some of my team have felt the benefit too. In terms of my family, the lack of travelling that comes from turning down invitations to speak has been wonderful. I feel less ashamed of my carbon footprint too. On the downside, I’ve realised how much I enjoyed travelling for work as a chance to be alone and re-charge. I’ve had to more consciously find time for this in my week.
All in all….
The bottom line is that my working habits are quite deeply ingrained. Saying No has changed the balance of my work, but not the quantity or the hours that I do. As a result, I feel no less busy, but I do feel less pressure – less like my every action is simply a response to the most pressing need of many pressing needs. I feel more in control of my work and that’s a great result, even if the total volume of things being done hasn’t shrunk.
I’ve got three more months of saying No to go. Reading back over this blog, I feel a renewed determination to make it count, so I can finish the year with a real sense of having stuck to my pledge, and reaped the rewards of that. When I finish, I plan to write some criteria for saying Yes, to help me filter things in the future. It’s important that this exercise translates into long-term change – after all, there’s still a fair few items on that list…