Red push button with the word 'no' on a pink background

Credit: Adapted from Getty

The world’s most productive scientists often have CVs that are filled with dozens of pages of publications, suggesting that they accept and take full advantage of every opportunity they are offered. But committing time and energy to any one project can limit other opportunities.

Many young scientists and principal investigators have a difficult time saying ‘no’ to offers to collaborate or join seemingly important committees — often thinking “something is better than nothing”. It is important to prioritize — and to make best use of a limited supply of time and energy to follow high-output pursuits, allowing time to recuperate outside of work.

Working in an academic medical centre, we are consistently surrounded by competing demands. A.S. is a resident physician who balances clinical responsibilities with research, volunteering and leadership pursuits. R.G. designs and leads professional-development workshops on time management, among other themes, and pursued a doctorate while working full time.

Managing your calendar and learning how to allocate time to the right projects are crucial first steps.

Reverse engineer from your desired goal

Think about your desired goal and break it down into bite-sized chunks, researching what these might be. For example, if your ultimate goal is academic promotion, speak to someone who has recently achieved it or find out your institution’s criteria for promotions. A recently promoted colleague can mentor you towards your goal. Consider saying no to any activities that won’t help to get you promoted.

At medical school, for example, A.S. wanted to spend a year at another institution learning how to perform high-quality clinical anaesthesiology research. He used his existing professional network to connect him with alumni who had also taken a year out to do research. These people helped him to identify conferences and projects that had principal investigators who would be able to provide funding and mentorship on his timeline.

Use the ‘SMART’ framework, a tool used in the business management sector, to help you achieve your goal. This framework helps to organize how short-term goals are set and measured. It requires goals to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. In an academic setting, the framework could be used achieve a SMART goal of academic promotion, for example. So it could start with something specific (I will improve the guest-speaking portfolio component of my application for professorship) and have a measurable outcome of aiming to speak at 25% more invited talks than in the previous year. Then include something actionable (I will reach out to five colleagues about speaking at their institution) and a statement about the relevance (having a national reputation for my work is crucial for promotion and giving virtual or in-person talks can help me to attain that). Finally, add a deadline (I will reassess my measurable goal by the end of calendar year 2022).

Check the return on your investment

Before blindly accepting any and all opportunities, take at least 24 hours to consider the ‘cost’ of the activity. What will the work entail? How often will the group meet? What are the responsibilities? How much time per week is this expected to take? Once we finish the project, who reviews it? How long until implementation?

List all the activities that you commit time to on a daily basis, including professional engagements, hobbies and work-related responsibilities such as standing meetings and deadlines. Assign an estimated time value per week to each, then give yourself a 10% buffer for unexpected events. If engagements are in-person rather than virtual, allow extra time for travel. Then, consider whether this new activity will fit into your current schedule and whether it is worth the downsides of displacing or modifying other commitments.

It is much better to be honest and decline opportunities that you do not think will be of high value, than to accept them and later regret taking them on. Although it might be harder in the moment to say ‘no’ than ‘yes’, you could be saving yourself hours of frustration and giving yourself the opportunity to do an activity that you are much more passionate about and committed to at a later date.

Re-evaluate each commitment periodically

Some commitments that initially seem high value can turn out to be low value (and vice versa). Keep stock of your energy levels and overall productivity for the first few weeks of a new commitment. Toggl Track and RescueTime are popular time-trackers that work on a variety of online platforms. Alternatively, simply print or write down your scheduled commitments and make a note at the end of the day about how long you actually spent on each task.

Check back in: is this activity as useful and exciting as you initially thought? If the answer is ‘no’, don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself and, if possible, try to scale back your level of engagement. Is it possible to move to a more peripheral role? For example, rather than continuing to serve as the lead member of a newly formed recruitment committee, you could offer to serve as an adviser instead.

How to say no

To decrease your involvement in a role or committee, consider saying: “Thank you so much for asking me. Unfortunately, in recent weeks, I have had competing commitments that required more time and effort than I initially thought. I am committed to helping with this project, but I do not think I have the capacity to continue this level of involvement. I have a few people I’d like to recommend to take my place. Could we schedule a quick call to review those people?”

To decline extra research or grant proposals, try responding with: “I very much appreciate the opportunity to get involved. I aim to be sincere and genuine with regards to carrying out existing projects before agreeing to take on new ones. I am doing my best to expedite current manuscripts, but realistically feel that it will be around [insert date here] before I am ready to take on this new project. If this timeline still works for you, I would be happy to discuss further.”

Remember that saying ‘yes’ to a commitment is inherently saying ‘no’ to later ones.

Although this opportunity cost is difficult to predict, balancing your time and energy with the estimated value of a commitment is a skill that can be practised and improved. Saying no can retain you the flexibility to commit to more high-leverage activities — a crucial way to further your scientific career.

Competing Interests

R.G. Ruth Gotian has two NIH grants. 1. National Institutes of Health/National Science Foundation (1RO1 GM 137411-01) Developing an Evidenced-Based Toolkit to Improve Diversity in the Physician-Scientist Workforce (total direct costs: $996,693; role on grant: co-principal investigator; dates of award: January 2020 to November 2023). 2. National Institutes of Health/National Science Foundation (1RO1 GM 137411-01) Developing an Evidenced-Based Toolkit to Improve Diversity in the Physician-Scientist Workforce (total direct costs: $996,693; role on grant: Co-Principal Investigator; dates of award: January 2020 to November 2023). She is also on the editorial board of the British Journal of Anesthesia and receives royalties from IGI-Global for a previous book on The Efficacy of Training Program and Systems in Medical Education and from Kogan Page for The Success Factor. She also receives royalties from Skillsoft, Madecraft and ExecOnline for educational videos.

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