I mean just “no” without the culture-of-busyness story of your hectic, heroic life.

You [my work colleague, not BFF] say: “I would love to help but I’m teaching this semester, finishing my book and have a grant due in two weeks. And Sam and I still haven’t gotten Champ to ‘good dog’ status, ugh…carpet cleaners are back.”

I hear you think I should be impressed with your busyness, productivity and wit.

While I just need to know you decline my invitation to be on the committee.

You [trainee in academic program] say: “I’m not sure I can hit that deadline. I’m pretty distracted with figuring out why the new approach to random forest is taking so long to run. Last run took until 3:00 am before I could cycle it again. I might have to delay the proposal again. Can we meet later in the week?”

I wonder:  Was that a “no”? Why is he so stressed out, this is what we do. Then I think, please do your work in the daylight by getting more organized. I don’t model this behavior; where is it coming from? And good grief, you just turned my offer to co-review a paper for a key journal for you to learn new skills into a new request for reorganizing my time.

Please repeat after me:

  • Thanks for asking me. I can’t serve on a new committee at this point.
  • This would be great experience. To keep things on track right now I think I should decline. May I review with you the next time [the journal] asks?*

Other perfectly fine declines:

  • I need to decline. Best wishes with the symposium – fantastic topic. Let me know how it goes.
  • I won’t be able to participate.
  • Not much bandwidth right now. Please circle back and I’ll review for next year’s meeting.*
  • May I send over some ideas? Won’t be able to attend the meeting but I have strong opinions about where we set the new grad student stipends.
  • Can’t make if because of a conflicting activity [this includes commitments to yourself to block time for your work.]

Note, none of these lead with “I’m sorry…” I hope you aren’t. You shouldn’t be. You know what you want and need to be doing. Be direct, be honest, and be concise. Just say “no.”

* Only offer later involvement if you are likely to be able to say “yes” – I’m on the 7th year of asking an “ask-me-next-year” peer to review abstracts. Making the ask at this point to see if he can make it to an even decade.

More Resources

Not that Kind of Investment: Tales of Time Commitment

Tools for Making Progress in Academic Life

Sure Your Overcommitted? Here’s a Hint…

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