Learning to say no

One of the most important aspects of both my personal and my academic life is that I truly enjoy being there for others, being generous with my time and helping out whenever I can. I also love to live new experiences, to keep learning and moving, and to give back to a universe that has given me so much. And, according to the people who know me best, it seems like I have a self-inflicted disease of not being able to sit still and let myself get bored for a bit. According to my mom, my plate always has to be piled high with things to do and, unless I have over three-hundred boxes to check on a to-do list, I just wouldn’t be me.

Well, this blog post title seems to contradict this intrinsic characteristic, doesn’t it? But the truth is, this is my esophagus talking. For the last 2-3 weeks, I have had my head full of so many things (more than ever, more than the busiest, craziest, most jam-packed periods of my life) both academic and not, both insanely complex (my research projects) and truly mundane (house stuff). Balancing everything, and making sure to make time for others, has been a precarious juggling act. I thought I had been doing a pretty good job at juggling, actually, until I slowly came to terms with the fact that I might be dropping a ball here and there, and getting hit in the head with one or two of them, because I’ve just got my hands TOO full. Admittedly, I’ve been feeling a moderate amount of anxiety. Not that I am hyperventilating (yet?), but my esophagus has been unhappily cramping on its own, without being provoked by anything, which has made it extremely difficult to sit, sleep, eat, drink, yawn, sneeze and even talk. It hurts like crazy. Even when I sit still and quietly, it has taken every opportunity to inform me that it is unhappy with the stress I am inflicting upon my body.

My mom, too, has taken every opportunity to inform me that she is unhappy with the stress I am inflicting upon my body. Cut back, stay put, sleep in, for once! Take care of yourself! You’re gonna pay for all this sooner or later! Her voice always rises out of sheer concern, which makes it seem a little bit like she’s yelling at me (which actually makes me more stressed out, but that’s okay – she’s Mom, she’s allowed.) She’s conveyed the message in different forms. So have my dreams at night, by the way. It took me about a month to realize that a recurring dream I kept having was actually a reflection of my current state. I’d be in Venice, at dusk, when the city is basking in a golden light. My favorite place, my favorite time of day, my favorite light. But I’d always be rushing. I’d always be checking my watch, and would always have someplace to be. And I’d always think to myself, I want to go there, but I don’t have enough time. It was only when I talked the dream out to someone that I realized exactly what it meant: I don’t have enough time for me, for my favorite things. (Now that I’ve figured it out, I stopped having the dream).

My supervisor has cautioned me as well, encouraging me when I tell him what my recent activities and progress has been, but also telling me to prioritize, to think ahead of how much time I want to devote to a certain activity at this current time, and to not run out of time and energy for my top priorities. Saying yes can sometimes come at the expense of your own urgent work. Many (if not all) graduate students know that things tend to take longer than we think! Sometimes that extra class, that extra presentation, that extra help on someone’s paper, or that extra conference can cost you time and energy that you really could have used for your most important work (or your downtime, family, sleep).

So, as much as I value giving back to others, to friends and to the community, and as much as I love being everywhere at once, soaking up opportunities and learning experiences, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing to say no, once in a while. Not to be rude or selfish or isolated, but because it IS an important skill to learn what your limits are. Not necessarily limits in terms of your capacities, but limits in terms of your time and – most importantly – your energy. I could always fill up my time with something. Easily. But I’m realizing now that I might be craving some time that is not filled up.

When I googled “saying no”, I was actually surprised to find so many links – all under “stress relief”, “time management” and “healthy living” websites – advocating that this is a really crucial skill to learn.

Why is it so hard for some of us? Well, apparently we love to help! We are afraid of being rude, and we wish to be agreeable and well-liked. We don’t want to reject or disappoint anyone, or turn down excellent opportunities for growth, or recognition, and for making new connections. Oh, and of course, we hate to feel guilty! But, all these “fears” aside, we obviously can’t say yes to everything without overcommitting and overburdening ourselves. Thinking we can do it all can be a dangerously unrealistic thought! We have to carefully think about what to turn down (what is a priority and what is not), and how to turn it down.

For the “how” part, a website about “zenhabits” and one called on stress management share some simple tips, which I have adapted and summarized here.

1.     Be honest and say that you have other burning priorities at the moment

There is nothing wrong with knowing what you have time for and what you can’t manage to do. There are only so many hours in the day! It’s reality that, if you accept to take on an extra commitment, you will have less time to devote to another activity – whether it is work-related or self-care.

2.     Suggest a better time when you’d be able to commit yourself

If something doesn’t currently fit your schedule, suggest to reconnect at a later time. Suggest a date when the person could get back to you. If it works for the person, this might be the best solution. Bear in mind, though, that you should learn to think about your time realistically. If you say yes, at first, and then have to refuse, it can be much more disappointing for the person you are turning down. And, if you promise to get back to the person, stay true to this promise!

3.     Think about it and get back to them

It’s actually a good idea to think about your time, your needs and your limits. Some people are really gifted with this – knowing what they can or can’t take on at a given time, and accurately estimating how long something will take. Much of this comes from experience, but some people are just better at it than others. Take time to mull things over, and decide once you’ve thought it through, made a schedule, or made a list. And don’t forget to consider how you are feeling lately, if you are tired or doing okay.

4.     Suggest a better person who might be able to help

This could be help enough for the person, sometimes. If your schedule is too full, but you know someone who might be better able (or better suited) to help, refer them to a lead!

5.     Simply apologize and say no.

The most direct way is to say no. Depending on what you are being asked, and who is doing the asking, sometimes this is fine enough. You don’t really owe an explanation to anyone, if you are too busy. It’s always nice to give one, but not necessary. You don’t need to be defensive or overly apologetic when saying no – you should just be polite.


The point of this blog post was not to encourage you to stay within your bubble and only satisfy your own needs. I still think it is very important to make time for experiences that allow us to grow outside of our comfort zone, to create new networks, and to help others with specific skills we might have. However, for health and sanity purposes and to ensure the success of your own top-priority projects (which is, after all, the main purpose of your PhD!) it is sometimes necessary to decline extra commitments.

I really see this as an exercise in being realistic – in learning how long things take, what your most important priorities are, and how much you can handle without sacrificing the quality of your own work, or your own well-being. I see this not really as “saying no” but learning to be selective about what you say yes to. In the end, there is only so much you can do!

(Now excuse me while I go pack for a two-week Summer-School in Europe that I should perhaps not be attending because my research project needs me here!)

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