I’ll admit it. I absolutely adore saying yes. There’s nothing more gratifying to me than helping others—that look of relief on their face, the respect they have for me, the pride I take in doing a job well—it’s more seductive and addictive than chocolate. I’m a multitasker and an overachiever, so I have a huge capacity for productivity…until I don’t.
This year has been a really hard lesson for me, a repeat of the same lesson, actually. The hole I’ve fallen in is quite familiar, and I’ve been here so many times, I have furnished the place. I even have a well-worn ladder to climb out. Take a look at my article on time management, if you’re curious as to how well I know how this goes: Eight Steps to Triage Your Priorities to Effectively Complete Multiple Projects.
Looking back, the problem began almost a year ago. I was in a new country and a new faculty position, and I was so excited. I had some major tasks on my plate, but they weren’t due for months, and when I was asked to do other new tasks, I said yes. Again, these were months away, and I felt up for the challenge. Then I broke both my wrists (which cost me at least six weeks), then I had a month of international travel, and then all my optimistic estimates of how long each task would take me popped like helium balloons, and I found myself completely overextended.
Like a good trooper, I decided I would just push through it, get it all done by working nights and weekends, with the belief that as soon as I was past this crunch period, I’d go back to a “normal level” of work. I even took a week off and spent it writing on my novels, ignoring all my emails for the entire time but that just made my inbox fill up with dozens of new requests. Simultaneously, and in direct contradiction to my stated goals, I said yes to yet more things. Then my new course started at the university, I needed to travel to work with my research collaborators, I had a few additional grants to write, and I had my performance review, where my head of department said I really needed to work on my research output (which is code for “publishing in peer-reviewed journals”).
Fine, I thought. I will add publishing to my list of things to do. The low hanging fruit was doing a second edition of my technical book, so I found a publisher, and they said yes. I also started some research consulting, a couple of undergraduate research projects, and a host of other activities that sounded oh so fun at the time.
I’m sure you can guess where this cautionary tale is going. About six weeks ago, I hit my limit. I wasn’t sleeping well, my low back started spasming, I stopped exercising, and I slowly gave up all my personal life activities—reading, writing, knitting, socializing with friends…I had no time for any of them.
Yes Isn’t A Choice
Like I said, I’ve been here before many times. About ten years ago, I was meeting with a counselor about some personal issues and she asked me why I kept saying yes. I told her it was for the lift it gave me. When I’m down, it makes me feel better to do things for others and forget about my own problems. She raised an eyebrow and said, “If yes is always the answer, it isn’t a choice. It’s the default.”
That really resonated and made me think. I was saying yes for more than altruistic reasons. It was a coping mechanism—if I was too busy working on things, I wouldn’t have time to deal with the bigger issues in my own life. I could ignore the elephant trashing my room while I finished “one more task” for someone else.
She made me say no to everything for a week, and it was the most painful thing I’d done in a long time. What would people think of me if I didn’t help them? Would they be disappointed in me? Lose respect for me? Aaargh! The monkeys in mind went running around screaming and flinging poo at me, but the truth was that the world didn’t come to an end. No one cared that I said no.
Hitting the Reset Button
This time, I’m trying something new to get out of the hole. First, I made a to-do list of everything, both at work and in my personal life. It was four, single-spaced pages. I did say I was an overachiever, right?
Then I went through the list and crossed out everything I didn’t really have to do. That was hard. Then I wrote down a list of my values and goals. What is meaningful to me and what do I want to get out of my life in 2020? It turned out to be fairly short:
- I want to be a published author and get my novels out into the world.
- I want to attain a high level of fitness and walk the Camino de Santiago (all 600 miles of it).
- I want to get promoted at work to Associate Professor.
I used the goals above as a litmus test for every task remaining on my to-do list. If it wasn’t going to help me publish my novel, get fit, or get promoted, I crossed it out. This shortened my list to just over two pages, and I felt a weight lift off my shoulders.
Now, I’m working my way through the list, focusing on the big and onerous tasks with imminent due dates, and I’m whittling away at them one by one. I’ve knocked three major ones off, and I can already see the day fast approaching that I’ll be down to one manageable page.
No is the New Yes
This turning over of a new leaf will only work if I don’t add new items to my list. From today to the end of 2019, my answer to every new request has to be no. My kryptonite is service activities. Since I made my resolution to say no to everything (unless it immediately benefits one of my three goals for 2020), I’ve had my will tested several times. “We’re having a workshop for STEM high school teachers and really need your help running a session on biomedical engineering. Can we count on you?” No, sorry I
can’t. “Our publicity manager is going on sabbatical and you’d be perfect to take over this role. We’ll get you a whole team to help, so it won’t be much work. What do you say?” No. “We’re running a camp for high school girls to learn about engineering. Can you–?” No.
At first, I felt bad every time I declined, but as I feel the day approaching where I’ll have the opportunity to write again, I realize I’m saying yes to me. It feels so great to be walking every day and hiking on the weekends. It’s wonderful to meet up with my friends for knitting or dancing or a cuppa. If you’re feeling overextended and overwhelmed by your life, perhaps it’s time for you to say no, too.