How and When to Say ‘No’

How and When to Say ‘No’ October 13, 2015

In my weekly newsletter I have written about alleviating stress and explained why saying ‘no’ is essential to health and long-term productivity. But this is easier said than done. When do you say no? How do you choose between many promising-sounding opportunities? And how do you say no without seeming like a prima donna?

The key to this discussion is grasping that you need to focus on your core calling(s), and that the nature of your work in those callings changes over time. For example, if you are single, or if you are married with no kids, or are empty nest, then the question of saying no looks different than if you have kids at home. Or if you are a doctoral student writing your dissertation, saying no looks different than if you are a tenured full professor.

The basic principle is that a modicum of success or career progress, or additional family responsibilities, normally requires more saying ‘no.’ Instead, people often keep trying to shove more stuff into their schedule, leading to mediocrity across the board.

For me right now, I have at least two core callings – being the best dad and husband I can be, and writing things that reach the broadest audience possible. These callings are big and demanding, and they mandate that I say no to lots of other things that are good, but not in the bulls-eye of my core callings.

Infrogmation – Old weathered stop sign, at old wharf structure along Mississippi River front in Algiers, New Orleans. Wikimedia Commons. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

So I can’t give you a one size fits all model for saying no – you may be in a very different place from me – but here are some categories of opportunities in which I often say no:

1) Book reviews and similar writing assignments: these can fit into the core calling of reaching large numbers of people. But many requests I get along these lines are for books I don’t especially need to read, and for outlets that have relatively small audiences. Earlier in my career, I said yes more often to these as a means of establishing a presence in my field. That is less urgent now, and every book review I accept takes a day or two away from writing my latest book. This adds up over time, and many book reviews will only be seen by a small number of specialists.

2) Manuscript reviews: these can be a tough call, because I remember well how encouraging it was for me when established scholars agreed to review one of my book manuscripts as part of the publishing process. (University presses commission blind reviews of manuscripts to refine and correct them before they’re actually published.) This is often purely a matter of service to other scholars, and sometimes this is a good enough reason to say yes. But I also tend to say yes when I’m especially interested in the topic and it will help me to keep up with what is happening in the field. I’m afraid that I say ‘no’ to virtually every request that comes from a grad student, scholar, or pastor not yet working with a press – such requests are just too premature.

3) Travel: this is the #1 area where I have cut back. I get requests to give talks, to participate on panels, to do external reviews of history departments, and more. As much as I enjoy meeting people and interacting over my research interests, travel is a really inefficient way to reach a broad audience. A high-traffic blog post can reach tens of thousands of people for a couple hours’ work; travel rarely reaches more than a hundred people directly. Again, earlier in my career conference travel and other speaking opportunities were a way to get my name “out there.” I don’t need as much of that now, especially given my calling to be present with my kids as much as possible.

4) Committee assignments and other community and church service: professors get asked to do a lot of this sort of thing, and it is really nice to be asked! But these very quickly become a burden, taking you away from home many nights, adding extra stress, and diminishing your rest and family time. I would suggest picking no more than one of these and try saying no to all others.

What do you say when you say no? I usually say something like this – “I have been trying to get better at saying no lately, just to make sure I have enough time for current commitments and my family.” This not only is true, but I find that most people admire you for drawing the line. Sometimes it reminds them that they need to do more of this, too.

By the way, if you want to ask me to come speak at your college, or to write something for you, please go ahead and ask! I never mind being asked. Sometimes I end up doing things just because after prayer and conversation with my wife, I sense that God wants me to do it. I never want to be so rigid that I am not open to considering opportunities to which I might not naturally gravitate.

Still, as your opportunities and responsibilities increase, you simply have to plan for saying no. Failing to do so bears all sorts of bad fruit, and can detract from your effectiveness in the things you MUST do.

See also my post “What to Publish and When?

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