This is going to be a blog post about saying no.
Recently I had the extreme good fortune to be selected for a training course in Strategic Research Leadership, being delivered by 64 Million Artists and wisely commissioned by my employer, University of Edinburgh.
Of course, I didn’t think it was good fortune at the time. Yes, I’m keen to develop as a leader and especially to apply those skills more strategically, but I had some major skepticism about the course. My main worry was that the 6-days (spread over 6 months) would be a colossal waste of time, and I was 100% ready to drop out if that was the case. Excess workload, resulting from a strong pressure to do everything and be everything to everyone, is the single worst thing about my, admittedly very privileged but ultimately stressful life. My work constantly spills over into my free time, leaving little room for family or myself. Case in point – I am writing this while on holiday. My husband is having a nap – I’m writing a blog post about doing less, because I know if I leave it til next week when I return to the office, I won’t find time to write it!
So my main fear was that this Strategic Leadership Course would try to feed me time management tips, taking up 6 precious days of my time, when what I need is just LESS WORK. Thank the lord, far from it. Instead we spent time developing a vision for what we really want to achieve in our lives (not just in our careers!) and then formulating ideas to achieve that. One session left a particularly strong impression on me. We spent some focused time considering the work-life balance challenges of another person on the course, culminating in offering them some advice. My advice? Say No, for a whole year, to everything new. Conferences, training, collaborations, journal reviews, student supervisions, the whole lot. Their response? Laughter. None of us could imagine doing such a thing.
Learning to say no
I’ve been told incessantly that I “ought to say No” and it drives me around the bend. I say No constantly. Certainly I say No to a lot more than half of the things that come my way. The problem is, it isn’t enough. And saying No is very hard when you want to be a good citizen and make a fair contribution to academia and to the wider community you serve – in my case, the autism community.
But after I suggested that this colleague adopt a Radical No policy, I found myself wondering, why is it so easy to give that advice, and so hard to follow it? Why aren’t I brave enough to step up and follow my own advice?
Saying No to everything feels like a huge risk
What if I say no to the one project that makes my career? What if I miss out on some opportunity to be part of a ground-breaking discovery? What if my employer disapproves?
I suppose if I define my career by getting a paper in Nature then theoretically I could say No to the one opportunity to do that in my working life. But I don’t define my career that way. Yes I want to be successful – I am very ambitious and have more than my fair share of academic ego – but I’m here to do something good, something that makes a difference. And I know for certain that there’s no such thing as “the one project” that makes a difference in that sense. The creation of new knowledge is necessarily incremental – especially in a science like psychology which isn’t really set up for Eureka! moments. Saying No won’t mean I miss out on The One True Project. In fact, a year from now, we’ll all be working on much the same stuff as we are right now.
In terms of what my employer thinks of this strategy, that does scare me a bit. I guess I have three main defences. 1) they sent me on the leadership course that inspired this tactic; 2) by saying No to new things, I’m meeting the obligations I have to existing things (more on this down the page); and 3) the alternative is probably burnout and collapse. Honestly. Nonetheless, the thought of what my superiors will think when they read this is a major anxiety… but I’m not going to let that stop me!
Saying No to everything feels selfish
What if my colleagues think I’m not doing my fair share? What if they are annoyed that I turn down the request to do their student’s viva? What if I owe them a favour?
This one is super scary too. But let’s consider the alternative – the working life I’m living right now. Everytime I say Yes to a new conference talk, consultancy opportunity, student viva or community event I’m essentially taking a little slice of time away from the students, colleagues and projects I’m already working with. The time I spend reading someone else’s student thesis is less time to read my own students’ work. Rather than presenting new data at a conference, I could be getting my hands dirty, helping my colleagues with their exciting analyses. So while it feels selfish to say No to new things, really what I’m doing when I say Yes, is faiing to meet my existing obligations. In that context, saying Yes feels like the more selfish option, prioritising the padding of my CV and glamorous external engagements over the day to day business of research.
Moreover, every time I turn down an opportunity like a conference presentation or consultancy, I can recommend someone else. There are brilliant people all over the autism research field – early career researchers, autistic people’s organisations – who could benefit for more than I from these kinds of opportunities. Not least, in practicing their own ability to say No!
Saying No to everything feels too extreme
It’s silly isn’t it, saying No to EVERYTHING?
I’ve tried saying No to “more things” or “as much as possible” before and it’s got me nowhere. One reason is illustrated in this brilliant graph from @rafalab – a constant and insurmountable naivety about what the future holds. It’s so easy to say Yes to things that are happening more than 3 or 4 months in the future – my calendar looks so lovely and empty by then! I need to learn that’s not the case, and I love the fact that this year is going to make me a total No Pro.
In addition, every new query that comes in I spend time – sometimes quite a lot of time – thinking about it. I might be researching the travel implications to see the true impact on my time. I’ll be discussing it with my family and colleagues. I’ll ask colleagues what they think. I’ll worry that if I don’t do it there’ll be a “gap” on my CV. A disproportionate amount of time and energy will go into each new query, even if the end result is a No. Saying No to everything is therefore a double time-saver.
The Rules of The Radical No Project
Say No to everything new between now and 1st May 2020. This includes, but is not limited to: student supervision, viva examining and internal student reviews, journal reviews, consultancy, training, talks, conferences, panels and debates, events, advisory boards, mentoring and media commentary. I’m also aiming for zero international travel for work. And even no new collaborations.
What counts as new? Well, if something is a core part of an existing collaboration, that’s OK. For example, if a project on which I’m a funded collaborator hosts a meeting I will attend that meeting, and – if asked – I will present at it. Another get-out-clause: if I have an existing collaboration with someone and they want to extend, continue or develop that link, I will think about it. After all, the point of this exercise is to have more time for my existing commitments, not to give up on my work all together!
The other exception will be my own ideas! I’m allowed to say YES to them!
In terms of the procedure of saying No, I’m going to put a link to this blog in my email signature, and have a standard message ready, with the link, for requests from people I don’t know. People I do know will get a slightly more personalised version, but it amounts to the same thing (thanks for understanding, everyone!) I’m going to keep a record of what I say No to and follow-up with another blog a year from now. And I’m also going to pin up a list of things I want to get done (publishing old data sets, slides and stimuli, updating this website, creating a decent re-useable grant budget template) and plough through them over the next 12 months. Each time I manage to share or update something new I’ll mention that I had time to do it thanks to the Radical No project.
So, what am I going to do instead?
Well, one big thing will be seeing a good bunch of students through to PhD completion I hope, as well as guiding a couple of post-docs into longer-term positions. Oh, and continuing to work with autistic colleagues at the University of Edinburgh to improve their experience as employees or students. Another one will be reinvigorating this blog, which has been sorely neglected the past year. I’ve got some big ideas I’d like to get out into the world at last – some might even make it into a paper… I’ve recently become an editor of Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice and it seems clear I’m going to need to have a good bit of time for those duties. I’ll also be settling into my new Director post, on which more to come. Finally, I might spend less of Friday evening answering emails…
But most of all, I’ll be aiming to achieve the standards that got me to the stage I’m at now professionally, and which are currently at risk of being abandoned in the face of overwhelming workload. I’ll be aiming to publish some data, pre-register some analyses, share some resources on my website, and reinvigorate the participatory elements of all my projects. These things – open science, robust analysis, public engagement and participatory working – are non-negotiable. I hope my year of Radical No is going to give me the resources to do science I can be proud of. I’ll report back in 12 months to let you know how it went…