When ‘Yes’ People Need to Say ‘No’

 In PhD/Postdoc Blog

Imagine this:

You spend your days feeling wanted, needed, and heavily involved in…well, everything. Perhaps you have multiple current collaborations, you report to a variety of superiors, you manage a slew of undergraduate interns, and perhaps you even hold a teaching assistant appointment.

Your Email dings nonstop, and each day is jam-packed, but somehow you manage to squeeze in last-minute meetings for social, research, and administrative commitments. After taking a deep breath (you realize you’ve been holding it) you take inventory of your vocabulary and find that one word dominates your daily conversations. It sounds like this:

“Can you take on an extra project?” –Yes!

“Can you stay late today? While we’re at it, how about tomorrow, and next week, too?” –Yes, of course!

“Can you meet me in twenty minutes? No, make that ten?” –Well, yes, I suppose.

“Can you meet five deadlines today, and make it to a family dinner this evening? –Hmmm…I don’t think I…er, yes.

As graduate students, it seems admirable-expected, even, to say ‘yes’ to any/all opportunities thrown our way. In fact, we have been told to do so! These are pivotal years in an early scientist’s career, after all. These years are designed for branching out, learning new skills, experiencing new opportunities, and expanding our network.

While these opportunities hold true, in my humble experience, graduate students tend to take direction and execute beautifully, and sometimes to a fault. The drive to succeed, the passion for our study areas, the tendency to have type-A personalities. These things serve us well; until they don’t. While saying ‘yes’ to every opportunity suggests a high-performing individual from the outside (multiple projects, social commitments, a jam-packed schedule, meetings and deadlines up the wazoo…sound familiar?) there exists a fine line between ‘committed, respectable graduate student researcher’ and ‘over-committed, burnt-out scientist in too deep.’ You see, in the world of graduate studies, there are many instances in which ‘yes’ people need to say ‘no.’

The benefits of learning to say ‘no’ – unashamedly and confidently, when it counts – are plentiful. For example:

  • Establish and uphold dearest priorities. (Think about the metaphor for life using a mason jar, golf balls, and sand. The mason jar represents life, the golf balls represent high priority items that require adequate attention and mental space, and the sand represents life’s trivialities. The golf balls only fit in the jar if they receive attention first! Alternatively, saying ‘yes’ too often to life’s trivialities creates unrest, where there seems no choice but for physical health, family ties, and personal care to fall by the wayside
  • Maintain motivation and high enthusiasm for work
  • Execute higher quality work (read: experiments, collaborations, publications)
  • Experience less anxiety, because let’s address the elephant in the room: “Early Career Scientists Need Mental Health Support“(Thanks, fellow BEST blogger Matthew Davidson, for an excellent post!)
  • Lesser chance for burnout
  • Strengthened social connections (strength in quality, not necessarily strength in sheer numbers)

It turns out that ‘yes’ people are not destined for a career marked by over-commitment. Give the following strategies a try:

  1. Document your day, writing down every task completed, and the time taken for each task. This includes lab work, meetings, cooking, scrolling social media-everything. Where are you expending unnecessary mental effort? (Where are you devoting undeserved attention to your ‘sand?’ Can you replace this sand with a few higher-priority ‘golf balls’?)
  2. Create a list of priorities. Jot them down in your phone, in a planner, and/or on a whiteboard. Make them known to a mentor. The more you read and say them, the more likely you are to hold them close.
  3. A wise mentor once told me: When deciding whether or not to take on an additional project or pursue a collaboration, ask yourself: Can I guarantee a publication out of this, and in a reasonable time frame? If the answer is ‘no,’ stop! Do not pass ‘go’.

You see, graduate school is a time to learn a staggering amount of new skills. Learning to say ‘no’ is perhaps the most underrated skill of them all.

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