Getting to No

As a two year-old, I had freedoms that mostly withered away by the time I hit puberty. For instance, I could blow bubbles in my milk. I could kick piles of leaves up into the air. I could walk around in my underwear in public. I could throw tantrums. And I could say “No.”

I knew that, inevitably, I would end up writing a blog entry about a topic I know next to nothing about. I am not alone in my yay-saying, especially among women, and especially among women who work in academia. In my department, and probably in every department, thirty percent of the people are doing one hundred fifty percent of the work.

The colleagues in my department who say “No” inspire a mix of suspicion, admiration, resentment, and envy. The rest of us talk about work-life balance (and sleep) the way 16th-century alchemists talked about the Philosopher’s Stone: something not quite of this world. We take a crazed pride in circumventing the guilty knowledge that if we don’t say yes, someone just as busy is going to have to do the work instead. When I explained that one reason I have trouble saying no is that I work in a department of half-insane workaholics, my department chair replied, “Hey, some of us are completely insane, thank you very much.”

I am sure there are Marxist and feminist lessons here, but I will leave them to others since I am unable to master even the basic principles that I can’t be in more than one place at once or do more than one half-hour task in the same half hour. If I could be in two places at once, I would just want to be in three places at once. In the week since my last blog entry, I have said yes to two committees, three workshops, and a big department project. When I was asked to take on something else that normally I enjoy doing – and for which I would be paid – I looked at the proposed schedule and felt Magic Rocks of anxiety spiking bold colors in the pit of my stomach. I tried to say no, but what I said must have been heard as “Kind of sort of maybe not,” because I found myself on the schedule (albeit with reduced hours) anyway.

Why? Personally, I have about 57 varieties of reasons not to say no, some of which I’ll leave out of this blog. First of all, I couldn’t quite bear the idea of closing off a possibility or knowing that demurral would create extra work for someone else. Also, as one of my other colleagues put it, “I feel like if I say no, someone is going to DIE.” If someone needs help, I seem to be wired to volunteer. Another huge factor in my saying yes is that far, far more things sound like fun to me than I am ever going to be able to do. Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is my sense of cosmic obligation, a cellular-level conviction that other needs are greater than my own. Deep down inside, I feel like the problem isn’t that I can’t say no; it’s that I need to sleep.

I could make this issue political, but, honestly, it’s personal. Deborah Stearns, one of our psychology faculty and (probably more relevant to this discussion) someone with good sense, pointed out:

Lots of people have trouble saying no and there are strategies to help…Sometimes it helps to remember that every “yes” to one commitment is a “no” to something else, even if that is just getting enough sleep. Our time and energy is limited and it does behoove us to make choices about how we allocate them. You are not obligated to agree to every opportunity offered to you.

Oh, the injustice of having finite time and energy! Sometimes people have warned me that I am working too hard, but most of them are also working until midnight or getting up at two a.m. to grade, so credibility is a little bit of an issue there. There’s an esprit de corps factor, too: When I see my colleagues working too hard, it makes me want to live up to the standard they set.  On the other hand, the true department slackers who criticize the workaholics for working too hard just sound like they’re making excuses for their own lack of engagement. And those who seem to balance “yes” with “no”? Their reasons for setting limits seem to possess an immanence I have no hope of ever attaining. If I keep saying yes, I won’t need to figure out when enough is enough. Sometimes it seems as though at any given moment I am struggling with the sense that I really should be doing something else, and since – for instance right now – I really should be, maybe I don’t really want to be the person who says no.

I lamented to one colleague, “You know that sales book, Getting to Yes? I need Getting to No.” He replied, “Just read Getting to Yes backwards.”

Deborah, the aforementioned psychology professor and expert on good sense, offers this excellent advice on the art of refusal, but even she struggles with “No”:

If you are looking for graceful ways to say no, try something like, “Unfortunately, I’m just not able to take that on at this time.” You can preface it with how interesting or exciting the opportunity sounds or thank them for thinking of you, if you want to soften the blow. The key is to say no without giving specific reasons for why you can’t or won’t, because that gives the other person the opportunity to try to remove those obstacles (“Oh, but it hardly takes any time at all!”). Then stick to your no, politely but firmly, and remember that you are not obligated to do everything.

But then she adds, “I really should try to remember this myself. Sigh.” No matter how much good sense you have, it seems, it’s still difficult to close off a possibility.

Therein lies the problem: To say yes to something that sounds enjoyable, helps your colleagues, puts your strengths to good use, advances your career, or adds to your paycheck is sometimes more expedient than surviving the vertigo of “No.” In the time it takes me to work through the anxiety that I am missing an opportunity, shortchanging my students or colleagues, inviting catastrophe, or getting on someone’s lump-of-coal list, I really could get a lot done.

My department chair said it best: “Keep practicing the no, except for the next few days – I’ve got something to tell you about…”