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Your No.1 Time Management Lesson: Just Say No

Research is a challenging field that demands a tremendous amount of skill and dedication.  We are required to be creative but logical, independent but team players, innovative but grounded, proliferative but focused.  This balancing act requires not only a very broad set of skills and talents, but also the ability to manage it all with poise and tact.  Add into the mix your supervisor, your department, your professors, and your co-workers, and it becomes immediately apparent that sometimes you just have to say no: to that next experiment, to attending that conference, to that teaching assistant position, or to organizing that departmental event.  Here’s how:

  • Understand what is reasonable for you to do. You need to know your limits before you decide what you can and cannot do.  These limits may have to do with your skills or your time, but sometimes they are based on your role in the lab.  As a grad student or post-doc, you shouldn’t be doing the work of a tech; as a tech, you shouldn’t be expected to produce data like a post-doc.  Be aware of your role and job description, and be ready to articulate your objections if you think a particular assignment is beyond the scope of your responsibilities.
  • Make your decision based on data, not emotion. You need to be organized enough in your work and your scheduling that you know how much you are doing and when.  That way, when you beg off an engagement by saying that you are too busy, you can explain exactly what you are busy doing.  If you’re feeling frazzled when a request comes in, take some time to think about it, ideally after you’ve had some time to relax: what sounds impossible right now may not look so tough tomorrow.
  • Try making it sound like a “maybe”. Supervisors are often taken aback by a direct “no” from an employee.  Even if you know that a certain task is not possible for you to complete, try to start a conversation about it instead of flatly refusing.  Explain why you are concerned about completing the task: is it the time frame?  the skills required?  a problem with equipment availability?  Your supervisor may be able to solve some of these problems for you; or, there’s a good chance they will agree with your assessment and stop pressuring you to complete the task.
  • Be gracious in defeat. No matter how tactful you are, there is a chance you will be overruled or otherwise “forced” into doing something you’d rather not.  This is not the time to mope; this is the time to complete the task or assignment as quickly and efficiently as possible, so you can get back to your other work.  Feel free to drop a few hints to your supervisor about how it is as complicated as you expected, or how you feel rushed or pressured, so they don’t think you were refusing for no reason; but be sparing, since they will most likely remember the complaint, instead of your hard work.

Have you found a good way to say no when the tasks start piling up?  Tell us about it in the comments!

3 Comments

  1. Adrienne Huntress on May 30, 2018 at 1:58 am

    Great article! I think delegation is also a valuable tactic to employ in these situations (when possible). Ever heard the phrase “delegating to the floor”? That’s when you take on an additional task but choose another to drop. If your PI asks you to do an additional experiment that you can’t take on, it can be helpful to explain that another one may not get done. That way your superior can better understand what you can accomplish, AND can tell you that a certain task takes priority.

  2. Emily Crow on September 8, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    boy is that a hard sell, christopher! and super important.

  3. Christopher Dieni on September 8, 2010 at 1:41 am

    Not to mention the necessity of saying no, because you also need your personal time and a life outside the lab, too! No, I will not work every single evening and weekend. No, I am not a superhuman scientist.

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