We are members of a group of mid-career environmental social scientists who have met weekly for a decade to give each other feedback on our research, which we wrote about in a previous column. Increasingly, we were bringing our own invitations and job opportunities to the group, hoping that the members would serve as a ‘committee of no’ to help us decide which opportunities to turn down. This prompted one of us to throw in the towel: last May, facing the pandemic and career burnout, this member wryly suggested that we do a saying no game by challenging ourselves to collectively decline 100 work-related requests .
Oliver Burkeman argues in his book Four thousand weeks (2021) that saying no is essential to create space and energy so you can say yes to the things that matter. Despite its importance, saying no wisely is a fundamental practice that many researchers (ourselves included) have not developed. So we spent a year tracking and reflecting on our decisions to say no.
We recorded our 100th ‘no’ in March 2022. We learned that saying no takes more than a how-to guide. It involves rethinking priorities and empowering ourselves and our colleagues to set boundaries. We offer four insights for others seeking to align their finite energy with seemingly infinite possibilities.
Tracking helped make ‘no’ an option
There is an old adage that you manage what you measure. We often say yes by default, so tracking our decisions gave us a moment to stop and make a conscious choice. Two of us found the game motivating: saying no earned us a point in our quest to reach 100. We also found ways to constantly fight our ‘yes’ reflex. One of us has a cartoon illustrating the concept of ‘JOMO’ (joy of losing) taped to her desk. Another thinks of colleagues who say no more often, cautiously, as role models and consciously imitates them.
Chasing the ‘no’s’ inspired us to record other things. We logged completed tasks to combat imposter syndrome, kept a number of active projects, and tracked how we were spending time each day. This helped us limit the number of projects we took on or the hours we spent working on. We found that expressing our limits in terms of weekly or monthly fees was particularly helpful (for example, setting a limit of one daily review per month, rather than 12 per year).
Do not say more often and for bigger questions
During our ‘year of no’, we said no more often than ever before. For example, between us, we turned down 31 guest talks – but that still wasn’t enough to prevent burnout. In total, our members gave 43 guest speeches and lectures. We turned down too many small things—such as reviewing journal articles—and not enough big assignments. Consider a budget analogy: if rent and other fixed obligations exceed your income, saving on the cost of a coffee each day may not balance your budget. Admittedly, saying no to big things can be difficult or almost impossible. We have less control over many larger time commitments, such as the number of courses we teach, than we do over small ones. However, we turned down leadership opportunities or the chance to help write major grant proposals. Researchers in adjunct or grant-funded positions may have even less control over their primary time commitments. Part-time work, as our Australian member does, is sometimes an option — but for many in the United States, it would involve an unsustainable loss of benefits such as health insurance, sick leave and family leave. Despite these limitations, we must pay attention large chunks of time when balancing our overall commitments.
Early in our careers, saying yes helped us make connections and explore promising research directions. But as opportunities multiplied mid-career, we needed a mindset shift, from gathering to pruning. So we need to develop clear criteria to help us choose what to pursue. Questions that have helped us strategically evaluate opportunities to say yes include:
1. Does this opportunity fit my research agenda and identity?
2. Does it ‘spark joy’ (with a nod to Marie Kondo, doyen of organization)?
3. Do I have time to do a good job without sacrificing existing commitments?
4. Does the opportunity leave room for my personal life?
5. Am I uniquely qualified to fill this need?
By saying no, we conserve our energy and creative capacity to do a better job in the projects, mentoring, and service roles we choose to devote our time to.
The pandemic has especially fueled the need to say no. We often booked ourselves to the limit: taking on as many projects and roles as we thought we could handle. Inevitably, when one of us or a colleague got sick or had a family or student crisis, they had no bandwidth or slack in their schedule. Building on this slack is essential to being able to handle life’s events.
Saying no is emotional work
During our no year, we routinely noticed feelings of guilt. We worried that we were letting colleagues down, not doing our ‘fair share’, or failing to live up to our privilege as fully employed researchers and mentors. We wanted to be kind, helpful and available, even if doing so left us personally overwhelmed. Each member tried to decline invitations, even in situations where she was already making a significant contribution. For one of us, it was hard to say no to taking on another graduate student, even though she already served on six student committees. Another tried to turn down an early morning presentation that conflicted with her family’s morning routine, even though she was the only parent at home that week. We even had a hard time not volunteering for great service roles or opportunities that we weren’t directly asked to take on. In a multitude of ways, we saw how our cultural conditioning as women, academics, and public servants contributed to our difficulty with setting boundaries. Tracking not only how often we said yes or no, but also our emotional responses, made the emotional labor of saying no visible.
Advice on the logistics of saying no is available. But we found we needed less logistical advice and more emotional advice: how to get past the idea that we ‘should’ say yes, that we owe the questioner something more than a polite refusal. For example, some advice columns suggest using a ‘little no’, or only agreeing to part of the assignment, as a way to lessen the blow: for example, agreeing to review a paper rather than contributing to it, or reschedule a speech. for later in the year. We found that this tactic was a slippery slope that led people to ask for a bigger commitment later. And sometimes he would let us complete the entire task if others did not contribute equally. Instead, we learned to say ‘no’ early, firmly and completely. Only one firm has not really reduced our commitments. To soften the blow, we suggested others who could complete the task and tried to raise the voice of others by recommending colleagues and students whose views might otherwise be overlooked. Providing an authentic but concise explanation for declining assignments also preserved relationships with the people making the requests.
The importance of relationships emerged as a key lesson from our year no. We now choose partners who respect our boundaries, personal lives, and mental health, and who honor our decision to say no as an act of self-care. In return, we understand the need to handle “no’s” from our colleagues with grace and to make our requests of others (especially those who are younger than us) in ways that include a way out of easy.
Practice makes ‘no’ easier
Just as keeping a financial budget takes repetition to make behaviors stick, we notice that, with time and repetition, the emotional work of justifying ‘no’ to yourself and saying ‘no’ to others it’s getting easier (especially with the mutual support of our comment group). And when we reflect on our past year, we don’t regret our “don’ts.” When given the chance, it’s easy to worry about the loss or the social consequences – but it turns out, at least for us, that ‘you only regret the things you don’t do’ isn’t true.
We will continue to say no more often and to bigger tasks, and build spaces in which others are empowered to set boundaries. This is the only way to make room for intentional ‘yes’ in our finite life of seeking.