Just Say “No”…..?

I’m confessing it here for the world to read, even though anyone who has spent a grand total of five minutes with me already knows it: I’m a “yes” girl.

I seem to have inherited a “service” gene, one that causes me to spring to attention and feel a surge of “yes, I will help!” whenever someone sends out a  request for human assistance.

Need someone to run an errand for you? Sure, I will! Need someone to watch your kids for you? Sure, I will! Need someone to vent to? Me, pick me! Need to spend an evening hanging out? I’m your person! Got too much work on your plate? Here, pile some of it onto my plate! Can’t make my office hours but need to talk with me? Sure, I’ll stay until after 6 p.m. and make my entire family scramble to figure out how to make that work! Need another body in that committee? I’m glad to spend an hour a week talking about things I barely know anything about with you fine people! Need someone to critique your draft essay or article? Me, I will! If an email goes out looking for volunteers and I am free on the date and time requested, I answer that email: I can do it!

Even worse, you don’t even have to ask me to help. I will just notice that you need help and volunteer my assistance. Because I’m a “yes” girl.

Even when I say “no,” I still somehow manage to end up saying “yes.” Even when I know there is (probably) someone else out there who can take something on, if there’s even a whiff of desperation in the request, I’m on it. Even when I try to avoid putting myself in situations where something comes up that I could say “yes” to, I end up getting involved. I’m like the freaking human version of Lassie (not the Eric Knight novel Lassie; the television one, always saving everybody from everything.) Must. Solve. Problems! Must. Serve!

Or, maybe in more positive terms, we can classify this as the Superhero Gene. I will come to your rescue!

There’s no point in trying to figure out which of my erstwhile parent lines contributed this particular item to my genetic makeup. And generally, it’s not a problem. Generally, I like being helpful. I like knowing I’m making a difference. My default setting is “pleasant and gets along with others working for a common goal.” I need to be needed (or at least to feel like I’m needed). I like being part of something bigger, part of a team, part of a community. I usually personally enjoy the things I’ve agreed to take on–it’s not like I’m agreeing to help clean out septic tanks or do someone’s taxes. And on the plus side, almost always when I need help, someone will come to my rescue because of past kindnesses–that’s not a bad thing, right?

So, I pile it all on–I agree to serve on committees, I agree to go to functions, I agree to meet with my students when they can arrange it around their busy schedules, and then re-arrange my own busy schedule to make it happen, I agree to family visits, I agree to critique people’s writing, I agree to help someone move–in short, I agree to All The Things. I once had a colleague listening as I spoke of the things I planned to do over winter break look at me in alarmed disbelief: “You do know you are only one human being, right?” Well, yes—but, but, but–All The Things! Must. Help. Must. Do.

BUT…. I’m also a raging introvert who must have down time away from others to recharge, never mind actually getting anything of note accomplished regarding my own work. While I genuinely enjoy people in a general sense, they exhaust me and I can easily grow overwhelmed without realizing it, resulting in my needing down time to recuperate from a sudden onslaught of exhaustion or some illness that has crept in unawares while I was going full-steam. Coupled with the extra duties I take on, such downtime inevitably results in even more time not being devoted to my dissertation. So, while this superhero gene of mine posed no real threat to my well-being and productivity while I was still in coursework, now that I’m in the dissertating stage of things, I’m realizing it constitutes a major obstacle that must be overcome.

I’ve always thought the 24-hour day was my biggest hurdle: so many things I want to do, so few hours in which to do them. But now, I am realizing that it’s not the 24-hour day that is the limiting factor, or at least, not chiefly. It’s my own inability to walk away and say “no” to non-essentials–because to me, burdened as I am with this “superhero gene,” everything feels essential. It’s hard sometimes for me to distinguish between what I need/want/ought/should/shouldn’t be doing. It feels very selfish to me to ignore invitations and requests for help from people I barely know, let alone friends and family members. It feels very limiting to me to say “no” when professional opportunities like officer positions in organizations, offers to present at conferences, or publication opportunities arise. Yet, as a graduate student writing a dissertation, this is exactly what needs to happen.

I have taken baby steps in this direction. I have said “no” to a few recent requests for help and social events and proffered professional opportunities. But it always feels so wrong. I can do it, so I should do it, right? “WRONG!” Shout all of my academic friends, my adviser, my committee members. “Just this one time in your life, you should always say NO! The dissertation has to come first! Be selfish about this! Everyone who knows you will understand!

I hear them, I really do. I know they’re right, too–this study is not getting done unless I put blinders on and charge straight ahead without looking to the left of me or to the right of me. This dissertation is what I’m here for, this is the thing that must be done–and it’s what I want to do. And it’s not like I can’t be selfish–I can definitely, absolutely, be selfish! But the million-dollar question is: how do you handle the tremendous sense of guilt and shame that comes from being a “yes” girl who can’t say “no?”

Well, readers? How do you protect your research and writing time?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
This entry was posted in General Graduate Student Advice, Time Management and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Just Say “No”…..?

  1. All “opportunities” have costs. The most difficult lesson I and any other academic (or human being) had to learn is how to balance those costs. Step 1 – write in dissertation time on your calendar. It is an appt you must keep just like any other. That way, you aren’t free at that time/day, so sorry. Step 2 – before responding to any request, step away and do a quick cost benefit analysis (including both tangibles and intangibles). Often someone else will volunteer in the meantime. If it still remains, then respond only once you’re past the knee jerk “yes” window and IF the CBA says you should.

    • Melissa Ridley Elmes says:

      Thanks for this! It’s good advice no matter your occupation, but definitely great for graduate students and other academics.

  2. Samantha says:

    I’ve started scheduling blocks of writing time – putting it on my google calendar just like all the department lectures, meetings, and other service obligations. This gives writing time equal weight in my head, and prevents me from scheduling something during those hours. I’m by no means good at this yet! But it’s a start for me. I suspect we all struggle with protecting our dissertation work time.

  3. Mary says:

    This is especially difficult for female academics, who tend to bear the heaviest loads of service, but who rarely chair the committees and thus don’t get the credit for their work. As a woman you could well find yourself asked to do extra service so your “busy doing research” colleagues can focus on their own work. You may even be made to feel like a bad sport, or lacking in team spirit for saying no. Say no anyway. Pick service that really matters to you, make certain you are in charge of it (not just serving on a committee chaired by a more senior male colleague) and say no to the rest. That way, your service will be most effective and visible, and you will create space for research.

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